Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Who’s For Hillary. And Who Isn’t.

Judith Warner
Domestic Disturbances
The New York Times
June 14, 2007

According to a Washington Post – ABC News poll published earlier this week, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s most consistent and enthusiastic female support is now coming from high school graduates with incomes of less than $50,000 a year. Young women like her best. Over age 45, college-educated, higher-earning women like her least. In fact, asked who they found most “honest,” “trustworthy” and “inspiring,” these women – Clinton’s peers – expressed more of a kinship with Barack Obama.

In a sense, none of this should really come as a surprise. Back in 2000, Clinton bonded like glue with middle class women in upstate New York – they liked the way she came to speak with them and learned about their lives – but was a hard sell in the wealthy suburbs downstate.

“Non-college-educated women really like that she’s smart, that she’s a woman who has worked for what she has, supported her family, kept her family life private and handled her marriage the way that she has; they’ve often made similar choices in their own lives,” says Celinda Lake, who has done extensive polling on women’s attitudes toward Clinton since the time of Hillary’s first Senate race. “Upper-middle-class women are more judgmental. They see her as polarizing; they second-guess how she handled her personal issues. Non-college women react to this argument with: ‘They always say this about women. They always try to drag the woman down.’”

Melinda Henneberger, political editor of the Huffington Post, found similar Hillary-hostility among the senator’s best-educated and most successful peers around the country as she traveled, talking to women about politics, before and after the publication of her recent book, “If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear.”

“She rubs a lot of women who are like her the wrong way,” Henneberger says. “There’s a feeling that she’s too poll-tested; that she’s too willing to say what’s required. Obama, Hennebeger says, strikes these women as “authentic.” Hillary does not.

All of this isn’t overly disturbing to the Hillary for President campaign. After all, Clinton is the undeniable Democratic front-runner with overwhelming support from women. (Fifty-one percent of women in the Washington Post – ABC poll said they’d give her their vote in the Democratic primaries, and women at all income levels chose her as the candidate they would “trust most to handle a major crisis”).

And it goes without saying that there are a lot more women who aren’t just like her –upper-middle-class by birth, Yale-law-school-educated, a multimillionaire – than who are, although the latter group consistently receives disproportionate attention in the media. Ann Lewis, senior advisor to the campaign, sighed yesterday as she recalled to me the multitude of “I hate Hillary” press coverage that preceded Clinton’s landslide victory in the 2000 Senate campaign, when she ended up garnering the support of 60 percent of female voters. “We’ve been through all this before,” she said.

Whether or not upper-middle-class female discontent ends up being an important force in the Democratic primaries (and if the past is any guide, it won’t), the disconnect between the senator and the women who should, on the face of things, be her most natural supporters is troublesome. Not, to my mind, for what it does or doesn’t say about Hillary; but rather for what it conveys about the women ostensibly most like her.

I wonder if it’s precisely the things that make non-college-educated women feel an affinity with Hillary – her toughness, her independence and her sometime status as an underdog – that alienate the elite. I worry that there may be among some elite women a certain disregard for, even a certain distaste for, the bread and butter middle class family issues that Hillary has placed front and center.

Take her “It Takes a Village” mentality: the idea that as mothers we’re all interrelated and need a helping hand (from government, among others) to keep our boats afloat. This resonates among women who struggle to pay for health care, who labor to find safe and affordable child care, who have to fight for sick days and for time off for school visits – who struggle to make ends meet, generally, as most people do.

But I’ve repeatedly found that better-off women, who have decent health care, child care, education and, to a greater degree, job flexibility, tend to often be hostile to this sort of communitarian notion of shared responsibility. (“Do you want the government raising your children?” is the frequent riposte.) They’re big believers in the American ethos of individual “choice” and “personal responsibility”; after all, being the winners in our society, it has worked out well for them. And they – rightly – perceive that they’re bound to be the losers, tax-wise, if their own gated community of family comfort is opened up to the larger village.

But that’s political. What rankles about Hillary – so uniquely – among better-off women is much more personal at base. Is it possible, now that stay-at-home momdom has become a fixture of the suburbs and when wealthy women have bailed out of the workforce in the face of family pressures, that the image of one who toughed it out – uninterruptedly, and with little or no publicly expressed angst – is less than welcome? (Michelle Obama, Barack made sure to share at a Momsrising.org advocacy event last fall, scaled back her career for a while to accommodate his, and still struggles, “juggling big things … juggling small things and everything in between.”)

Could Hillary, the first woman to make partner at an old boy Southern law firm, a working mother who kept it all together – with a lot of household help – feel like a reproach to those who just couldn’t hack it? Does this explain, in part, some of the “who-does-she-think-she-is” rumblings that run through the Hillary-hate?

Clinton made a point, throughout her married life, to keep herself financially viable – unlike a rather decent portion of our current female elite. Close to 20 years ago, she hesitated to leave Bill, according to Carl Bernstein’s new bio, because she feared she wouldn’t be able to adequately support herself and Chelsea.

This may or may not be true, and may well strike those of us who aren’t corporate lawyers as far-fetched, but it’s also all too typical a fear shared by many unhappily married women – except, of course, the most wealthy and successful.

Clearly Hillary feels “authentic” to a whole lot of women who, on the surface of things, have little in common with her. But among those who do, there is a sense that she’s less than real.

Which raises the issue: is being real – for a political candidate, in the eyes of the public – actually a matter of being true to him or herself? Or is it a matter of properly mirroring us to ourselves? Do we judge as “authentic” those who reflect us as we actually are? Or rather, do we celebrate as “real” the ones who make us feel we’re who we want to be?


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