Hillary Clinton’s recent testimony in Congress has been so exaggerated and altered that I’m amazed I haven’t seen an image of that famous emerald suit surrounded by flying monkeys.
Clinton spent her last day as secretary of state Friday, but not before our culture provided a stark display of not only her strength and influence, but also the societal forces that work so hard to limit possibilities for women.
A week earlier on Jan. 23, I watched excerpts of the five and a half hours Clinton spent before Senate and House committees investigating the Benghazi consulate killings. I’ve been surrounded by strong, articulate women all my life. The secretary of state’s testimony struck me as familiar, forceful and firm. And yet I was also struck by how rare it has been to see women in such public settings express themselves with such power, confidence and authenticity. All too often, even extraordinarily accomplished women come across as too cautious, as highly scripted as they are coifed.
Yet I was astonished to read news coverage of the hearings that portrayed those moments so differently than they had appeared to me. The Associated Press used the words “defiant” and “combative” to describe Clinton’s tone. Online blogs, magazines and newspapers ran images that skewed Clinton’s face into that of a Disney villainess. And even Dana Milbank, in a relatively admiring column for the Washington Post, echoed a dark stereotype when he stopped just short of describing Clinton riding a broom. The secretary of state, he wrote, “served up a potent brew of righteous outrage.”
I imagined how different those descriptions might have been for a male secretary of state, and I talked to professors who examine these topics.
Patsy Fowler, the chair of the department of women’s and gender studies at Gonzaga University, found Clinton’s testimony “assertive” and “measured.” Our culture requires women in the public eye to perform an accepted standard of femininity, she said, and it subjects them to criticism if they fail to conform to those narrow limits. She pointed to Rep. Todd Akin’s description of Sen. Claire McCaskill as “a wildcat” and not being “ladylike” when she clearly and forcefully stood her ground in the Missouri Senate race.
David Domke, a communication professor at the University of Washington, described Clinton’s testimony as professional, passionate, determined and empathic. “It’s always tough for a female to be angry in public or to be passionate in public because they are supposed to be, according to these cultural tropes, much more sympathetic and gracious,” he said.
He pointed out that as John Kerry bid farewell to the Senate last week, Kerry characterized McCain as “a cantankerous, maverick patriot.” McCain often is seen as admirable, a man who loses his temper because he loves this country so much. Yet McCain-like crankiness would never be tolerated from a woman politician. “As a woman when you’re cantankerous, you don’t get a pass on that,” Domke said. “You have far fewer degrees of freedom if you’re not a white man.”
His colleague, Gail Stygall, a UW English professor who teaches linguistics and gender, used the words “strong,” “confident” and “impressive” about Clinton’s performance.
She described the exchanges between the secretary of state and white, male senators as a competition for control of the topic of the conversation. She said that the aspects that struck me as remarkable – the hectoring strategies certain male politicians used to verbally overpower Clinton and the way she not only held her ground, but transformed the topic – indeed were counter to the ingrained patterns of communication we all learn in this culture. “Because she’s a woman, (the male politicians’) unconscious assumption would have been ‘Of course I can shut her up,’ ” Stygall said.
Instead, Clinton responded, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
What a wonderful, useful line. One I can imagine women inserting at endless moments in history. In popular culture, certainly, it would have balanced out so many unequal male-female relationships. Lucy to Desi: “What difference does it make?” Edith to Archie: “What difference does it make?” Mare to Lou Grant: “What difference does it make?”
Friday may have been Hillary Clinton’s last day ever in public service. Or not. Either way, she has carved out a wider range of possibility for American women than ever before.
What difference, at this point, does it make?
For women, it’s the difference between the words “Hail to the Chief” becoming synonymous with female power, not these:
“Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and caldron bubble.”