None of this is to say Obama hasn’t had his own stereotypes to confront during this campaign. He has faced criticism for being “too black” or “not black enough.” He’s had to battle the unfounded yet persistent Internet rumor that he’s a radical Muslim. And when his controversial pastor evoked questions about race and patriotism, Obama promptly dealt with the matter, giving one of the most complex and sophisticated speeches a politician has ever delivered.
There has been clamoring for Clinton to make the gender equivalent of Obama’s race speech. In this idealized homily, Clinton would confront the insidiousness of sexism and speak out against the societal ills that affect women; she would renounce the unfair criteria, at once more stringent and more superficial, by which women are judged. She might even address the compromises she is said to have made in her life—this is idealized, remember—and tell us why those compromises, rather than making her an inferior candidate, instead make her a stronger one, as they can be viewed as her imperfect resolutions to the dilemmas faced by many women: Do you stay with a man who has betrayed you, or divorce him? Do you keep your name, or take your husband’s? Do you put your career aside for his—at least for a time?
This speech, of course, is not likely to happen. Not only because, as was pointed out on The XX Factor, women disagree on such fundamental issues as abortion and child care, or because Clinton is politically cautious and to do so would risk alienating male voters. A speech like this would open Clinton to the criticism, leveled at her several times already in this campaign, and at any female candidate who refers to her gender or acts in a particularly feminine way (by crying, for instance)—that she is “playing the gender card.” It would also, sadly, only serve to reinforce the sort of stereotypes she would hope to counter: the nag, the crusading feminist, the ballbuster, the know-it-all with reams of statistics at the ready. But the fact that women are even imagining what such a speech would sound like on the national stage is significant.
As the Pennsylvania primary nears, pundits and party members are again, as they did before Ohio and Texas, calling for Clinton to step down. (“The model of female self-sacrifice is deeply embedded in our culture,” notes Bennetts.) And indeed it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see how this political cycle could end with her victorious. It is perhaps cold comfort to say that if she loses the nomination, her candidacy leaves behind a legacy of reawakened feminism—the fourth wave, if you will. But this is in fact what is happening.
The past few months have been like an extended consciousness-raising session, to use a retro phrase that would have once made most of us cringe. We’ve parsed the gender politics of the campaign with other women in the office, at parties, over e-mail, and now we’re starting to parse the gender politics of our lives. This is, admittedly, depressing: How can we be confronting the same issues, all these years later? But it’s also exciting. It feels as if a window has been opened in a stuffy, long-sealed room. There is a thrill at the collective realization. Now the question is, what next?