Clinton an ideal nominee for difficult times
Madeleine M. Kunin | February 17,2008
We are living in revolutionary times. For the first time in our history a woman and an African American are the top choices for the democratic nomination for president. Back in 2006 no one predicted this would happen in 2008.
This does not mean that either sexism or racism has disappeared, but it does mean that they are no longer impenetrable barriers to the presidency.
With two such strong, qualified candidates, how can we choose?
The media has framed the choice as one between change and experience.
Those words fit neatly into a headline; the facts are more interesting and complex. Both Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama represent change. Foremost, they represent change from the domestic and foreign policies of George W. Bush. Both represent change if we envision their portraits hanging in the White House next to the white men who have preceded them.
Clinton as the first woman, will not be holding the Bible for her husband, but swearing on the Bible herself if she is inaugurated. Obama taking the oath of office would have a similar impact.
In the debate over who represents greater change, the impact of electing the first female president of the United States has been marginalized, almost as if it would not matter. Twenty-two women have run for president, but none of them were taken seriously until Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy. What difference would she make?
I do not recommend voting for a candidate because she is a woman, but I do understand that as a woman, she brings different life experiences into the political arena. It is impossible for her not to do so. Her lifelong work for families and children will change the priorities in the White House. Health care, women's issues, the environment and education are typically female issues where female politicians have had the greatest interest and the greatest credibility. Today we know they are critical issues to our well-being and even to our survival. She will put them at the top of her agenda.
Many believe that Clinton is the conservative candidate and Obama is the progressive candidate. Economist Paul Krugman thinks otherwise. He credits her with the more inclusive and ambitious health plan and the stronger economic stimulus plan. She is more visionary than he is on domestic policy.
The war in Iraq has been a litmus test in this campaign. But it is not the only test - both Clinton and Obama have pledged to move troops out of Iraq as carefully and quickly as possible. Both know it will not be easy, and there is no daylight between their foreign policies.
Clinton has achieved something that no woman has been able to do - she is seen as a capable commander in chief, but that achievement has come at a price. A woman who displays toughness and ambition often sacrifices being liked. This is not a new discovery. It goes back 3,000 years to the first female pharaoh, Hatshepsut. Women in business, academia, science - you name it - are caught in a double bind. If they are not tough enough, they are not up to the job. Witness some of the reactions to her emotional moment when her eyes "welled up" in New Hampshire. If a woman is too tough, she does not fit our stereotype of female behavior. One study of women corporate leaders called it "damned if you do, doomed if you don't." A frequent response to a strong woman leader in any sphere is, "I just don't like her."
She has no role models. Nor are there potential women presidential candidates waiting in the wings. Women elected officials are scarce. The number of women in Congress today is at an all-time high: 16 percent. The United States ranks 69th out of 187 legislative bodies on that score.
It is impossible to untangle who Hillary is as an individual and who she is as a woman subject to gender stereotypes. There are differences between the candidates that have nothing to do with gender. She is a less charismatic speaker than Barack Obama, and she is more descriptive about the policies she would implement. She also attracts different voters, based not only on gender, but on income. I surmise she does well with those who make less than $50,000 a year because these voters are more dependent on government services, such as child care and health care, and less moved by inspiring rhetoric.
There is little doubt that she also faces a different test for competency than a man would with her credentials. The bar is higher for a woman candidate for any executive office. She has to prove she has the qualifications before she can talk about change. That was my experience running for governor. When Hillary Clinton displays emotions such as anger, or even laughter, they are dissected under a microscope for hidden meanings. Men are more likely to be lauded for the same qualities.
I point out these gender stereotypes because all of us, women and men, have been raised in a society of almost continuous male leadership. We cannot dispel our reactions overnight, but we can increase our awareness of how stereotypes influence our judgment.
I had the opportunity to see Hillary Clinton in action when I worked in the Clinton administration. One event stands out. When I was the American ambassador in Switzerland I hosted her visit which culminated in a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos. The day before her speech we skied together. The next day she stayed in her room to prepare. She gave a brilliant speech without a note in front of her. After the applause died down, the conference chair asked (in 1998), "When are you going to run for president?"
I am supporting her for president because she has the right values, she listens, she is smart, she is qualified, and she will create change the likes of which we have never seen before. The world will respect us once again, and we will respect our government once again, because we will have a Madam President who will lead us in the right direction.
I cannot resist adding a footnote. The good news is that this primary campaign has attracted new voters, and most importantly, young voters. No matter who wins the primary, I will support the nominee and campaign enthusiastically for her or him in the general election. Yes, these are revolutionary times, but only if we are unified after the last delegate is counted and elect the first woman or the first African-American president.
Madeleine M. Kunin is a former governor of Vermont and author of a forthcoming book, "Pearls, Politics and Power, how women can win and lead," Chelsea Green Press.