Again, a lot of this has to do with the Clintons’ marriage, which, after all the drama and cigars, represents the slog of staying together—because of the children or because of ambition or because in some nagging, primal way you still need each other. There comes a point in many fraught but decades-old marriages when the terror of having to reconstruct an identity without the partner you’ve had weighing you down and propping you up since you were basically a kid is more awful than the prospect of spending another twenty years fighting it out. It’s a partnership, where gender roles (and, one guesses, sex) play a minor part. Maureen Dowd was perhaps the most prominent of the female critics to assert that Hillary Clinton’s failure to dump her husband after his philandering rendered her “unmasked as a counterfeit feminist.” But that’s wrong. It was more like she was unmasked as an ordinary woman: frustrated, disappointed, pragmatic.
It’s funny, though, how many different kinds of people are sure that Hillary Clinton’s stubborn refusal to get divorced is evidence not of family values but of renegade (feminist) cunning. “You and everyone you know probably despise Hillary Clinton,” John Podhoretz wrote in Can She Be Stopped? “You think she stayed in her marriage because she was hungry for unelected power, and that disgusts you.” The fear that women will get something they don’t deserve because of the man they have managed to seduce is incarnated in this election, of course, by the deliciously villainous Judith Giuliani. The Giuliani campaign has obviously noticed the shift in marital roles Hillary Clinton initiated, and has attempted a response. Hearing Rudy tell Barbara Walters that he’d be “very, very comfortable” with his wife sitting in on Cabinet meetings had uncanny echoes of that fateful 60 Minutes interview when Hillary naïvely told the viewing public, “I’m not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.”
But there’s an important difference. People may have recoiled from Bill Clinton’s ill-conceived two-for-the-price-of-one campaign pitch, but if they bothered to learn about the woman who was at that time named Hillary Rodham Clinton, they had to concede that she was eminently qualified to contribute to his administration. Judith Giuliani, by contrast, is at an absolute remove from presidential timber. (Her justification for claiming “expertise” on how to handle chemical and biological disaster is based mostly on a year of nursing and possibly some experience stapling dogs’ gullets.) The Giulianis walked into a trap left by Hillary. She changed the expectations for a political wife, and now it’s a much more demanding role.
Edwards says she’s “completely sympathetic” to Clinton’s current struggle to be perceived as un-girlie. “She knows, as I know, that there are people out there who have trouble imagining a commander-in-chief that is a woman,” she says. “She has to convince them—wrongly, mind you—that despite the fact that she’s a woman, she has what it takes. Her job is much harder in that respect. But I do think that what it means is that we want some assurance that she’s not just a symbolic woman—that she’s really going to be a great voice for us. And in the campaign? This far? She hasn’t really done as much as I would’ve expected or hoped.”
But the main reason Elizabeth Edwards can say whatever she wants, can speak so freely, so knowledgeably, and so aggressively—and still seem so cozy—is that by actually running, Hillary Clinton is doing Edwards and all the other candidates’ wives the favor of absorbing much of the anxiety, suspicion, and contempt many Americans still feel toward accomplished women—which would otherwise be directed at them.