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Harpy, Hero, Heretic: Hillary

Why she stokes our deepest fears and darkest hatreds

More than any other public figure, Hillary forces us to acknowledge that the path to power for American women is not all that clear, more an odyssey than a march. The national trauma began when Hillary violated perceived roles of domesticity, says Betty Winfield, a University of Missouri professor who has been monitoring Hillary's public perception since the campaign of 1992. "People had a very preconceived idea about how a first lady was supposed to act, the image of a supportive wife but not too outspoken," says Winfield. "Hillary had no noblesse oblige cause, nothing coming from the domestic sphere like highway beautification or illiteracy or anti-drug use among teens. No, no. She was going to change the entire health care system for the whole country."

This didn't sit well, says Winfield, in part because "women who attain power or public recognition as satellites of great men are subject to a lot more criticism than women who arrive to the public arena on their own accomplishment." (In her day, Dolley Madison was accused of being lascivious, Jefferson's mistress, and trading sex for votes.) Of course, long before she was first lady, Hillary was already accomplished, having clawed her way up the law firm ladder to become the first female partner in Arkansas' oldest and most prestigious firm. The closest parallel at the time was…Marilyn Quayle. How quickly we all forget that Marilyn was a law partner with her husband in a Clintonesque firm called Quayle and Quayle. When Dan was named vice president in 1988, the governor of Indiana offered to appoint Marilyn to fill out his term in the U.S. Senate. Hillary merely took up the work of bushwhacking a path originally macheted by a woman now almost entirely forgotten.

Like Quayle, Hillary had her career sights aimed high, so how awkward was it that when she ascended to the West Wing in 1992, it was via the highest bedroom in the land. Certainly it explains why she uttered such mortifying lines as the classic: "If you vote for my husband, you get me; it's a two-for-one blue-plate special."

That original confusion about her role persists. Typically, says Winfield, women in power are seen as "either the domineering dowager or the scheming concubine." In the American psyche, Hillary is a two-for-one special, seen as both Election's Tracy Flick and a postmenopausal Margaret Thatcher power-Frau—despised for possessing sexuality and being devoid of it.

One of the first criticisms, says Edwards of his sculpture, "was that critics said the piece looked like 'Jimmy Carter with boobs.'" Edwards notes that the Internet is a kind of Dantean pit of Hillary imagery; he describes his work as an attempt to rescue her femininity from the sexual inferno in which he discovered her. "Before I came along, there were all these Photoshopped images of her," he says. "They'd take a lot of porn images and then splice her in. Oh my God...she's had to have seen them."

Most men, especially when women aren't around, will typically open up a conversation about Hillary in precisely these terms. Long before they get to her politics, they gossip about her comeliness, and the judgment is always harsh. Busting Hillary back down to mere dame, and a rejected one whose sexual allures fail, seems to be a necessary preamble to any discussion of her. In October, her Senate opponent, John Spencer, accused her of being ugly. (He now officially denies it.) The Daily News quoted him as claiming that Hillary had spent "millions of dollars" on plastic surgery. "You ever see a picture of her back then? Whew," Spencer said. "I don't know why Bill married her."

The point is, whether the real Hillary is brimming with sexuality or is entirely drained of it, any talk about her is always borne ceaselessly back to her intimacies, her appearance, her sexuality, her femininity. Why?

There are so many answers to that question, it's one of the reasons the country can't stop talking about her. But here is one: Hillary is an avatar of an existential dread skulking in the hearts of every couple who've tried to put together a life since the feminist revolution. This anxiety explains why the darkest question a liberal feminist can ask is: Why didn't she leave that son of a bitch? And it's why the coarsest question a conservative man can ask is: Who would do the bitch? Both point to deep fears that emerged alongside feminism, grounded, as every question since that revolution is, in the politics of the bedroom.

Hillary has come to embody a dark fear in the hearts of modern men: the wife who neglects the joys of the bedroom for her career. The middle years of marriage are hard enough (or so I have read), trying to keep the flame flickering amid the anxieties of bills, the call of career, the squall of little children. That's the age-old stuff. Add to that a novel stress on the guy: a new destructive Oedipal force right at his side, his wife. She wants a career equal to, if not better than, her husband's. Will she be more famous, make more money, hold more prestige?

And there's Hillary, pushing onward, to where? The presidency itself. She could possibly pull off what George W. Bush has attempted: surpassing a familial predecessor in achievement and esteem. As always, we imagine, Hillary is watching and learning, waiting her turn.

The flip side to Hillary's ambition evokes every career woman's greatest fear. How fragile is marriage? It can come apart as quickly as that girl delivering the pizza can snap her thong. And there is no amount of superachieving or hard work that can prevent this lurking humiliation. Just ask the other Hillary: As Martha Stewart ascended to the heights of fame, her husband, Andy, pulled a Bill and started screwing one of the young office assistants. It's absurd, sure. It's clichéd and pathetic. But, for the working wife, trying to build a career off the foundation of her marriage to even the nicest (smartest, richest, handsomest) man, her worst fear is that he'll stray in this, the most debasing of ways. It's a complete denial of her womanhood, an essential insult. It's why the kind of anger liberal women feel toward Hillary always circles back around to the issue of why she stayed in the marriage. Why didn't she take a stand against male grossness?

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