Hillary Clinton and The Cult of True Womanhood

The attributes of True Womanhood, by which a woman judged herself and was judged by her husband, her neighbors, and society, could be divided into four cardinal virtues – piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. Put them all together and the spelled mother, daughter, sister, wife – woman. Without them, no matter whether there was fame, achievement, or wealth, all was ashes. With them she was promised happiness and power.

— Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860”

I agree w/Hillary, it’s time to elect a woman for President. But I want that President to reflect the values of being a mother. #MothersDay

— Jill Stein, Twitter, May 8, 2016

What’s important about Hillary Clinton? She’s been a Secretary of State, a senator, a partner in a law firm. She has a much stronger understand of policy, both foreign and domestic, than any of her opponents. But that’s not what’s really important. What’s really important, Jill Stein tells us, is her fitness to be a mother, which is apparently lacking, despite the fact that her only child seems to have turned out just fine.

One of the many, many infuriating things about Stein’s tweet is that it’s impossible to imagine anyone saying something similar about a man. Does anyone think that  either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump “reflect the values” of being a father? Would anyone even ask that question out loud?

I think what Jill Stein is getting at — although it’s impossible to be certain from this tweet — is that Hillary is too “hawkish.” It’s true that Hillary favors a more interventionist foreign policy than Stein (or I) would like. But why frame that in terms of motherhood? Denigrating Hillary’s maternal qualities, doesn’t make Stein’s message any clearer; indeed it makes it harder to understand. And this kind of framing plays into True Woman stereotypes: all real women are gentle, demure, peaceful. No True Woman would willingly go to war.

I grew up in Arkansas; Bill Clinton is the only governor I remember. I learned the definition of the word “lesbian” because I overheard my mom speculating about Hillary. It’s not that there was any reason to believe that she was a lesbian; it’s just that she didn’t seem like other women. She was bossy, pushy, opinionated. She talked back to people. She made no bones about the fact that she thought she was smarter than, well, most everyone. “You have to admit,” my mother said darkly when I tried to defend her, “she’s an awfully strong woman.”

It’s been common, in this electoral cycle, to joke about the double-bind Hillary finds herself in (Brett Arends compiled this helpful list for MarketWatch, and Jimmy Kimmel assisted Hillary with her speech delivery on his show). But it’s not just about Hillary, and it’s not just conservatives and third-party outliers. In 2008 even feminists disparaged Sarah Palin for campaigning with a young baby and joked about her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. Palin was running for national office and wasn’t clear on the fact that there was both a North and a South Korea; there was a lot of room for criticism. There was no need to bring up her maternal success. But people did. What kind of a father is John McCain? I have no idea. I don’t remember that the topic ever came up.

Welter argues in her essay that the True Woman explicated in the ladies’ magazines of the nineteenth century eventually evolved into the New Woman–a woman who was strong, independent, and ran her own life. “And yet,” Welter writes, “the stereotype, the ‘mystique’ if you will, of what woman was and ought to be persisted, bringing guilt and confusion in the midst of opportunity.” It’s been two hundred years, and the evolution isn’t complete. The guilt and confusion still linger. You have to wonder if, as a country, we’re ever going to get to a point where a woman’s motherliness is not the overwhelming criterion for how we judge her.

 

The Perils of Criticizing Donald Trump

melaniaHere is something that is happening in 2016: Julia Ioffe, a Jewish journalist, wrote a profile of Melania Trump for GQ, and she incorporated less-than-flattering facts about Melania Trump’s father, and now she has a bunch of Trump supporters tweeting her with references to the Holocaust.

In this profile, Ioffe included three paragraphs about Melania’s father, and specifically about the fact that he supported financially but never had a relationship with Melania’s half-brother, the product of a youthful dalliance. Other than that, the profile was generally positive. Sample passage:

…[U]nlike her husband, Melania is reserved, polite, and steady, say those close to her. “There is a peace in her,” one old friend from Slovenia tells me. She is a homebody. She’s rich, but not a socialite; she prefers family to the It set and retires early after events.

Now, had I been the writer of this profile, I would not have included the information about Melania’s father. I get that it’s a scoop, or at least a scooplet. But as a reader, I would be far more interested in three more paragraphs about the elusive Melania, for whom, full disclosure, I have an inexplicable fondness.1 I think she is probably a fairly interesting person, and I would like to know more about her. And so to me the whole mess with Melania’s father and the son just felt extraneous. He did support him, after all; more to the point, what does a half-century-old private scandal once removed have to do with the presidential race in 2016?

Melania Trump didn’t like the profile, and hey, fair enough. Let’s be honest: even if I thought it were relevant I wouldn’t appreciate having my dad’s wild oats strewn across a national publication either.2 But it bears repeating: it is a generally positive profile. If everyone had just remained calm the profile would have been a net win, if a small one, for the Trump camp.

Of course, the Trump camp being the Trump camp, there was no calm. Here’s what happened:

Melania Trump tweeted her displeasure, as is her right. And then all hell broke loose. Over the next several days, Julia Ioffe received an anonymous call from someone who played a Hitler speech in her ear. There was another call from an outfit called “Overnight Caskets” (I don’t know what that is, but it certainly sounds vaguely threatening). She got another call from a company that specializes in cleaning up after homicides. (Points for creativity, I guess?) She got emails suggesting that her face would “look good on a lampshade.” Someone tweeted a picture of her with a yellow star photoshopped onto her blouse. There is a bunch of other truly vile anti-Semitic nonsense that was tweeted, but trying to summarize it just made me sad about the world and I eventually gave up. The Daily Stormer, an online bastion of white supremacy, wrote a blog post with the charming title “Empress Melania Attacked by Filthy Russian Kike Julia Ioffe in GQ!”3

Again, I don’t blame Melania Trump for not liking the profile. I wouldn’t have liked it either. But that’s not the story anymore. The story now is that Trump’s supporters have horrifically overreacted to a very mild affront, and Trump has, to my knowledge, done nothing to disavow this. And one has to wonder, what happens if Trump becomes president? Is every journalist in America going to face this kind of invective every time he is criticized?

I am currently reading Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain. She cautions against referring to American politicians as totalitarian:

In popular speech, the word “totalitarian” isn’t so much self-serving as overused. Democratically elected politicians are described as totalitarian (e.g., “Rick Santorum’s Totalitarian Instincts”), as are governments or even companies (one can read of “The United States’ march toward totalitarianism” or learn that Apple has a “totalitarian approach to its app store”). Libertarians, from Ayn Rand on, have used the word to describe progressive liberals. Progressive liberals (and indeed conservatives) have used the word to describe Ayn Rand. The word is nowadays applied to so many people and institutions that it can sometimes seem meaningless.

So far, I agree with her. Constantly invoking the names of Hitler and Stalin every time an opposing politician says something we don’t like only cheapens the narrative and allows us to obscure the horrific number of deaths and ruined lives in the wake of true totalitarianism. Yet I admit these passages gave me pause:

Everywhere the Red Army went–even in Czechoslovakia, from which the Soviet troops eventually withdrew–these newly minted secret policemen immediately began to use selective violence, carefully targeting their political enemies according to previously composed lists and criteria. In some cases they targeted enemy ethnic groups as well. . . .Soviet authorities, again in conjunction with local communist parties, carried out policies of mass ethnic cleansing, displacing millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and others from towns and villages where they had lived for centuries. Trucks and trains moved people and a few scant possessions into refugee camps and new homes hundreds of miles away from where they had been born. Disoriented and displaced, the refugees were easier to manipulate and control than they might have been otherwise.

Is it really so hard to believe that a Trump inauguration might usher in that kind of trumpviolence? I would never call Trump a totalitarian, if only because I find it difficult to imagine him implementing the kind of centralized economic control that was the hallmark of totalitarian governments. But I think some of his rhetoric and behavior taps into a totalitarian impulse in his supporters–a desire for strong authority, a desire to show people who’s boss. They’re attacking bystanders at Trump rallies; they’re sending anti-Semitic death threats to journalists. And what does Trump say about the attacks? At a press conference in March, he said, “The audience hit back and that’s what we need a little bit more of.”

This is a thing that is happening in 2016. It may not be totalitarianism, but I think it might be the thin edge of the wedge.


1 At least, I do not think she is dumb, as some have implied, and I do not think that her posing on a bearskin rug should disqualify her husband from the presidency. return

2 My dad’s wild oats consist, in their entirety, of a youthful scrape with the law for hunting without a license. Also I think he failed a class in college. return

3 Of course, the great irony of all of this is that Trump’s daughter Ivanka–with whom he is clearly besotted–is a Jew by choice and is raising her three children in the Jewish faith. You have to wonder (a) does the Daily Stormer know about this? and (b) does Ivanka know about the Daily Stormer? return