The Fight Stuff
May 9, 2008
NOTABLE in the Indiana and North Carolina primary results and in many recent polls are signs of a change in the gender weather: white men are warming to Hillary Clinton — at least enough to vote for her. It’s no small shift. These men have historically been her fiercest antagonists. Their conversion may point less to a new kind of male voter than to a new kind of female vote-getter.
Pundits have been quick to attribute the erosion in Barack Obama’s white male support to a newfound racism. What they have failed to consider is the degree to which white male voters witnessing Senator Clinton’s metamorphosis are being forced to rethink precepts they’ve long held about women in American politics.
For years, the prevailing theory has been that white men are often uneasy with female politicians because they can’t abide strong women. But if that’s so, why haven’t they deserted Senator Clinton? More particularly, why haven’t they deserted her as she has become ever more pugnacious in her campaign?
Maybe the white male electorate just can’t abide strong women whom they suspect of being of a certain sort. To adopt a particularly lamentable white male construct, the sports metaphor, political strength comes in two varieties: the power of the umpire, who controls the game by application of the rules but who never gets hit; and the power of the participant, who has no rules except to hit hard, not complain, bounce back and endeavor to prevail in the end.
For virtually all of American political history, the strong female contestant has been cast not as the player but the rules keeper, the purse-lipped killjoy who passes strait-laced judgment on feral boy fun. The animosity toward the rules keeper is fueled by the suspicion that she (and in American life, the regulator is inevitably coded feminine, whatever his or her sex) is the agent of people so privileged that they don’t need to fight, people who can dominate more decisively when the rules are decorous. American political misogyny is inflamed by anger at this clucking overclass: who are they to do battle by imposing rectitude instead of by actually doing battle?
The specter of the prissy hall monitor is, in part, the legacy of the great female reformers of Victorian America. In fact, these women were the opposite of fainting flowers. Susan B. Anthony barely flinched in the face of epithets, hurled eggs and death threats. Carry A. Nation swung an ax. Yet they were regarded by men as the regulators outside the game. Indeed, many 19th-century female reformers defined themselves that way — as reluctant trespassers in the public sphere who had left the domestic circle only to fulfill their duty as the morally superior sex, housekeepers scouring away a nation’s vice.
While the populace might concede the merits of the female reformers’ cause, it found them repellent on a more glandular level. In that visceral subbasement of the national imagination — the one that underlies all the blood-and-guts sports imagery our culture holds so dear — the laurels go to the slugger who ignores the censors, the outrider who navigates the frontier without a chaperone.
Certainly through the many early primaries, Hillary Clinton was often defined by these old standards, and judged harshly. She was forever the entitled chaperone. But that was then. As Thelma, the housewife turned renegade, says to her friend in “Thelma & Louise” as the two women flee the law through the American West, “Something’s crossed over in me.”
Senator Clinton might well say the same. In the final stretch of the primary season, she seems to have stepped across an unstated gender divide, transforming herself from referee to contender.
What’s more, she seems to have taken to her new role with a Thelma-like relish. We are witnessing a female competitor delighting in the undomesticated fray. Her new no-holds-barred pugnacity and gleeful perseverance have revamped her image in the eyes of begrudging white male voters, who previously saw her as the sanctioning “sivilizer,” a political Aunt Polly whose goody-goody directives made them want to head for the hills.
It’s the unforeseen precedent of an unprecedented candidacy: our first major female presidential candidate isn’t doing what men always accuse women of doing. She’s not summoning the rules committee over every infraction. (Her attempt to rewrite the rules for Michigan and Florida are less a timeout than rough play.) Not once has she demanded that the umpire stop the fight. Indeed, she’s asking for more unregulated action, proposing a debate with no press-corps intermediaries.
If anyone has been guarding the rules this election, it’s been the press, which has been primly thumbing the pages of Queensberry and scolding her for being “ruthless” and “nasty,” a “brawler” who fights “dirty.”
But while the commentators have been tut-tutting, Senator Clinton has been converting white males, assuring them that she’s come into their tavern not to smash the bottles, but to join the brawl.
Deep in the American grain, particularly in the grain of white male working-class voters, that is the more trusted archetype. Whether Senator Clinton’s pugilism has elevated the current race for the nomination is debatable. But the strategy has certainly remade the political world for future female politicians, who may now cast off the assumption that when the going gets tough, the tough girl will resort to unilateral rectitude. When a woman does ascend through the glass ceiling into the White House, it will be, in part, because of the race of 2008, when Hillary Clinton broke through the glass floor and got down with the boys.
Susan Faludi is the author of “Backlash,” “Stiffed” and “The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America.”
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company