In the late 1990s, many in the United States loved to hate then First Lady Hillary Clinton. Indeed, after her husband Bill had been president for four years, scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in 1996 that “Hillary-hating has become one of those national pastimes which unite the elite and the lumpen.” The same year, historian Garry Wills noted, “Hillary Hate is a large-scale psychic phenomenon. At the Republican convention there was a dismemberment doll on sale. For twenty dollars you could buy a rag-doll Hillary with arms and legs made to tear off and throw on the floor” (as quoted in Kohrs 1998: 1). Talk shows were full of speculation about Clinton’s purported lesbianism and drug use and The Nation declared, early in her husband’s presidency, that the country had a “quasi-pornographic obsession” with Hillary (17 May 1993). Clinton’s U.S. Senate election campaigns in 2000 and 2006 brought little relief from the onslaught.
Exaggerating her desire to appear powerful, media representations targeted Clinton’s femininity. She was‘the antiseductress who reminded men of the affair gone bad’ (Carlin and Winfrey 2009: 331). Likened by national Public Radio’s political editor, Ken Rudin, to the demoniac, knife-wielding stalker played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Clinton was the woman who simply wouldn’t go away. This image took a bizarre twist when conservative journalist? Chris Matthews linked Hilary’s success to Monica Lewinsky, the supposed ‘seductress’ of President Clinton: “The reason she’s a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around” (as cited in Carlin and Winfrey 2009: 331).
Feminist critics have explained these outrageous attacks as a misogynist reaction to the threat that Clinton posed to gender norms, and more particularly part of the continuing backlash against anything that smacks of the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment movement). Symbolic of the deep struggle over the role of women still disturbing most nations, the conservative forces that viewed Clinton’s rise to prominence as a threat focused were attempting to move national discourses of gender to the right (Templin 1999: 21). Analysts of the 2008 Presidential campaign have argued that sexism toward women candidates remains alive and well in the United States. Coverage of both Clinton and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, notably when the question of their suitability as a possible ‘commander-in-chief’ was raised, often seemed hard pressed to move beyond a parade of stereotypes and prejudice. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, they were hard put to emerge as ‘warrior queens’.
Resources & Further Reading
Campbell, Karlyn (1998) “The Discursive Performance of Femininity: Hating Hillary.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 1(1): 1-19.
Carlin, Diana B. and Kelly L. Winfrey (2009). “Have you come a long way, baby? Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage.” Communication Studies 60 (4): 326-343.
Templin, Charlotte (1999) “Hillary Clinton as Threat to Gender Norms: Cartoon Images of the First Lady.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 23 (1): 20-36.
Troy, Gil (2006) Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady. University of Kansas Press.