Happy about Hillary

the_big_two_democrats_obama_and_hillary.jpgWhen Barack Obama won in the the Iowa Democratic caucuses last week, I thought Hillary Clinton was done for. Now that she’s won the New Hampshire Democratic primary, I’m feeling a lot better. As far as substance goes, I can’t see much to choose between the two, at least not yet. They’re both light years better than the Republican alternatives. So for me a big issue is which represents more social progress, electing a black president or electing a woman? My answer is–a woman. The barriers to electing a woman, at least in the US, seem to me to be greater.

The person who can’t vote for Obama because he’s black is very likely to know this isn’t good. Racism is something to be ashamed of, for the vast majority of people. It’s only a matter of time before it dies away. But feelings about gender are much more complicated. People are ambivalent about powerful women, and they’re not ashamed of it. Their thoughts about gender roles are deeply rooted.

All that puts Hillary at a disadvantage. She has to seem dominant, assertive, “presidential.” But she’s also got to fit into people’s ideas about proper gender roles–she has to be “feminine.” Why does femininity matter? Sad but true, I think an acid test for Americans is whether a candidate would fit in at the family barbecue. (On that score, I think George Bush passes with flying colors. I hear he’s a nice guy.) You can’t have a lesbian at the dinner table in middle America!

Who said anything about lesbians? When I want to get a grip on mainstream opinion, I ask my kids what everyone’s saying at school here in Dallas, Texas. Hillary’s a lesbian. There you go. Translation: Hillary doesn’t act the way women are supposed to act.

It’s very hard for a woman to get elected when she has to convince everyone she’s both capable of running the country and a “real woman.” And these are obstacles that aren’t going away anytime soon, since people are perfectly comfortable with their views on gender, not ambivalent or ashamed. If Hillary can overcome them, that will be amazing.

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