Diary

(Un)likable

A blog post has been making the rounds about Hillary Clinton. Titled “(Likable),” it’s a feminist’s contemplation of how unfairly Hillary Clinton has been treated over the years, and how much of this unfairness is rooted in her gender.

First, let me say this: I agree with the blogger that women candidates do face unfair criticisms a great deal, on everything from the tone of their voice to their appearance to their aggressive or non-aggressive stances on positions. I think a lot of women would concur.

But as I read the list of ways in which Sec. Clinton has been criticized over the years, I kept thinking of this candidate or that pol, many of them Republicans and all of them male, who’ve faced unfair criticisms, as well. Heck, I’ve even criticized Ted Cruz’s voice myself. So the blogger’s argument is valid only up to a very small degree. Clinton might be criticized in some cases unfairly because she’s a woman. But mostly she’s criticized because she’s a politician advancing policies that about half the country doesn’t like (you can say the same of GOP pols).

What bothers me about this kind of Poor Pitiful Hillary approach is that it does a disservice to women, by implicitly suggesting we can’t take it, or we need to be treated in some gentler fashion than men, or that because Hillary has suffered so much from strong criticism, we should…what, cut her a break?

Tell that to Margaret Thatcher. Or Sarah Palin. Or Christian conservatives, for that matter. Or how about telling it to Nancy Reagan? I still remember how she was criticized for choosing a mastectomy over a lumpectomy after a breast cancer diagnosis. I’d say that’s a nadir in First Lady hate that even Hillary Clinton can’t match.

The point is that unfair and unsavory criticism is an equal opportunity menace.

But let’s get back to this “likable” description. It comes from a primary debate back in January 2008 when then-candidate Barack Obama referred to then-Senator Hillary Clinton as “likable enough.” Since then, I’ve contemplated this offhand remark, and the conclusion it’s drawn me to is one where I actually do feel great pity for Secretary Clinton. I think her life problem has been that she herself doesn’t believe she’s “likable enough.”

She married a man whom she learned was a philanderer (possibly one who committed sexual assault). She not only stuck with him through serial adulteries that were not just betrayals of her but of women in general, she publicly defended him. She became a warrior against critics of Bill, coining the phrase “vast right wing conspiracy” to diminish detractors, allowing surrogates to publicly and repulsively smear women who accused Bill of harassment.

This was more than just being “the good wife” who wants to save her marriage for the sake of, say, her child. To me, these were acts of a woman whose identity was so closely connected with that of her successful husband that she took revelations about him to be criticisms of her. She couldn’t seem to step back and ask herself if she was betraying women everywhere by such repulsive responses. If she had merely said, “I stand by him because he’s my husband and this is a private matter, but these women don’t deserve to be insulted, so I will demand no one do so in my name,” how much more likable she would be now.

But here’s the problem: I don’t think she ever believed she was likable enough to pull away from popular Bill, even a little, even enough to take up for women accusing him of harassment and assault. She couldn’t do it because who would she be then? Sadly, I think her answer to herself was: not likable enough.

That’s the Greek tragedy of her life, that she has never believed in her core she deserves to be valued and liked as a strong woman with strong ideas. She hitched her wagon early on to a strong, likable man, letting her persona be subsumed in his for most of her adult life.

Now, ironically, that connection weighs her down as she must renounce some of the centrist Democratic policies her husband championed, policies that many progressive-minded voters in the Democratic party find…not likable enough.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.