Hillary Clinton: Minority Candidate

Hillary Clinton
Photo: Photo Illustration: Getty Images

Well. We'll be honest. We thought Ellen DeGeneres set the all-time record for the amount of discussion that could be had about an older blonde woman crying in public. But Hillary really blows her out of the water. (And she didn't even really cry — as Jezebel put it, "It's not crying if there's no snot.") Regardless of whether "The Cry," as we're calling it henceforth, actually put Hillary over the top in New Hampshire, the media is going bananas about it. And while there's a lot of talk about how almost crying "humanized her," what it really did, in the eyes and words of the media, was make her a minority candidate again. She is a woman. You almost forgot, didn't you? It's not that crying is a particularly womanly thing to do; it's that the coverage of the tears suddenly has everyone from Gloria Steinem to Arianna Huffington to Chris Matthews howling about her femininity. Clearly, Hillary being a woman was a much bigger deal to us than we thought it was.

"I know it's long past time for a female president," Rebecca Traister wrote on Salon about her change of heart toward Hillary. Traister says she just assumed that Clinton wouldn't be the only woman she could bank on. "But the torrent of ill-disguised hatred and resentment unleashed toward a briefly weakened Clinton this week shook that breezy naiveté right out of me." Traister says she had an "almost primal defensiveness" for Hillary, not because of the tears, but because of the attacks that came after. If there was a time to stand up for a woman candidate, she explains, it's right now.

Traister is referring to attacks on Clinton like Maureen Dowd's today in the Times (did anyone doubt that this would make MoDo go bonkers?). Dowd accuses Clinton of being "weirdly narcissistic" and trying to "fend off calamity by playing the female victim." She compared Clinton's victory in New Hampshire (after being "embarrassed by a man") to when she won her Senate seat after standing up under the shame of the Monica Lewinsky scandal ("being embarrassed by another man"). Dowd's new Times opinion-page colleague Bill Kristol was blunter. "It's the tears," he told Fox News. "She pretended to cry, the women felt sorry for her, and she won."

Harsh, right? Equally harsh are the reactions to those women who indeed felt sorry for her and pulled the lever her way. On Jezebel.com, editor Moe Tkacik said to all those "who said Hillary's teensy little tear session had swayed your vote to Hillary: Fuck you."

The gender debate has been on simmer through this campaign so far (it flared, briefly, a few months ago, when the Washington Post's Robin Givhan wrote a column about Hillary's fashion sense). After all, we'd like to think we're beyond it — it's a little like wondering about whether the Bradley Effect was really a factor in Obama's mediocre showing in New Hampshire last night. As Gloria Steinem pointed out in the Times yesterday, "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House." It sounded outdated when Steinem published those words yesterday. But today it's clear they're still resonant.

Take the heckler during a speech of Hillary's that said, "Iron my shirt!" Or the voter who asked McCain, "How do we beat the bitch?" (And got a good laugh out of the candidate.) Or Chris Matthews this morning, who, in a heated moment on MSNBC, said "the reason [Clinton is] a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is that her husband messed around." It was an echo of Dowd's point: Hillary succeeds when people feel that she is trodden upon by men. Does that honestly explain Hillary's success? Or is it a reflection of deeply held misconceptions by Matthews himself? It's hard to tell.

Perhaps it's best for these issues to be examined out in the glaring, ugly open. But the funny thing is, Hillary didn't play the gender card with a speech or a campaign advertisement. She didn't even have to say a word about it. In fact, she didn't even have to shed a single tear.