One of the more depressing Tuesdays in recent women's history was August 27, 1996. That was the day Hillary Clinton appeared on stage at the Democratic National Convention, wearing a Jackie O. suit, uttering the mantra: Husband-Family-Children-Husband-Family-Children. It seemed all the vestiges of the original Hillary had disappeared: her former provoked, impatient expression had been replaced by a look of warm, benign motherliness. "All over the country little girls and little boys are being tucked into their beds," she murmured, like she was telling a bedtime story. It was as if she'd been hypnotized, or lobotomized.
Like many women I know, I voted for Clinton in '88* because he was pro-choice and because he was married to Hillary. She was the most intelligent and ambitious woman I had ever been alive to see in the realm of national politics. After 12 years of Nancy and Barbara, here finally was a powerful female role model, and a lot of women—me included—immediately idolized her. A girlfriend of mine who worked in DC sometimes had sightings of her, and she would call me breathlessly, describing her to me: her clothes, her attitude, her voice. I think part of Hillary's fascination for us, besides the fact that she was openly feminist in the so-called "post-feminist" age, was the fact that she was consigned to the role of the wife, the first lady, no less, when it was so clear to us that the whole business made her cringe. She was smarter than him, and he knew it. When she became involved in health care policy issues, many voters griped: Hey, we didn't elect her! But as far as my friend and me were concerned, we'd intended to elect her. We'd taken Clinton seriously when he'd promised, "Two for the price of one."
My friend and I identified with Hillary Clinton like fans identify with rock stars. We turned her into a fantasy of Empowerment: She was stronger than all of those men she was surrounded by. She would crush all of them with her brilliance. Of course like all fantasies, ours did not account for her human failings. We also didn't anticipate the powerful, unflagging hatred she would encounter almost immediately, a hatred so intense it could make anyone, even the strongest woman in the universe, run for cover. And run for cover she did—in order to escape America's hatred she underwent a series of transformations, which culminated in the Good Mother version of Hillary we saw last Tuesday.
The Hillary of our first, early-Clinton-era fantasies was angry and arrogant and fearless. No one knew how to approach her or talk about her. Like Stephanopoulos, she irritated the public and the media with her self-important attitude, particularly when she declared that she was "not the type" to hang around making cookies. This early Hillary was soon recognized by the Clinton camp as a P.R. disaster, so she softened her image, cut her hair in a series of '50s styles. One afternoon early in the Whitewater scandal, she held a press conference dressed in a pink sweater, sitting demurely in an arm chair. This new, quieter Hillary didn't intimidate the reporters; they played softball with her, asked her easy questions prefaced by compliments. When they talked about it afterward the pundits all agreed that she was a real smart cookie. They seemed relieved. Here was a Hillary they could condescend to.
But if she found ways to make the media stop hating her, it was harder for her to make the popular, collective mind stop hating her: Their contempt persisted in the form of Rush Limbaugh FemiNazi parodies, Impeach Hillary and Ditch the Bitch bumper stickers. She makes me sick! I heard innumerable callers declare on right wing radio. For a while Hillary did what a lot of women do when faced with this kind of irrational, atavistic misogyny: she disappeared. We would occasionally see her waving from planes, or going on trips to obscure places with Chelsea. She was out of the limelight, where the wife belongs. In the background.
Then last Tuesday she re-emerged, sounding like Barbara Bush, placing the family and the husband before herself; not angry, not angry at all, not really even a feminist any longer. She declared to great applause that children are the number-one-most-important-thing-in-life. Her speech successfully co-opted Family Values for the Democratic party. Family is a destiny we are all headed for, she seemed to be saying. And it's wonderful! But the main reason I don't believe she meant it is the same reason I'll vote for her husband, no matter how mediocre he is: she's part of a pro-choice administration. No matter how convincingly the Democrats try to turn themselves into the party of Family Values, what being pro choice is all about is the fact that families aren't destiny, you don't have to have children if you don't want them or like them, and giving birth isn't the defining experience of every woman's life—even if Hillary would've had us believe otherwise when she sentimentally described giving birth to "our daughter." (At this point in the speech Chelsea squirmed and sweated, in her endearing way.)
I hope she is lying, and with the lies she will be able to free herself. If she is lying, it means she has learned a lesson that most ambitious, career-oriented women learn sooner or later: If you want to succeed, you have to dish out a certain amount of lies, so people (men or women) won't be threatened by you. Because if they're threatened by you, you'll be cast out as a Witch, a Monster. For a while Hillary was perceived as a monstrous, unnatural woman, but she put on pink sweaters, learned the script, stopped asking questions, and tamed herself. Now that she's tamed and domesticated, maybe America will finally leave her alone.
*Editor's note: We're pretty sure she meant '92.