“Hillary will never be
President. She is a woman!” This utterance did not come from George W. Bush, or
from any of the opponents in the 2008 presidential campaign. It didn’t even come
from the NPR announcers who seemed to disapprove of Clinton’s campaign from the
day she decided to run. It wasn’t Rush Limbaugh either. It was Marilea, one of
my students in a rhetoric seminar I taught in the Fall of 2008. She was 23. She
was an English major. She had taken several classes focusing on rhetorical
principles. Now she was enrolled in “Gendered Language Uses,” a senior seminar
that asked students to apply the rhetorical principles they learned about
throughout their undergraduate career to readings, audio, and video that
specifically focused on gendered language uses. We used Hillary Clinton’s run
for presidency as an example of women’s role in politics, encouraging them to
think critically about the historical and contextual roles that women have
played in U.S. society.
In this article, I want to
reflect on the pedagogical decisions I made when I taught a course on gendered
literacies during the 2008/2009 presidential campaign. I specifically focus on
what I term the “Hillary” phenomenon, the media’s often negative and
unflattering portrayal of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. I start with a
brief exploration of my goals for teaching current events; I then discuss
student perceptions of Hillary Clinton’s role in politics, and I show the
importance of paying attention to students’ social influences that, in Arizona,
are often marked by “fear and trepidation” when it comes to political change. I
show the importance of using examples from Clinton’s writing, and I point toward
pedagogical reasons for engaging students in discussions that address our
positionalities in a variety of discourse communities. I conclude by pointing
out that we need to encourage students to think critically about their own roles
in perpetuating current value systems by challenging their assumptions about
gender roles, race relations, sexual orientation, or class systems.
Contextualizing Classroom Discussions:
Women’s Roles and “Hillary’s” Run for Presidency
Already in 1938, John Dewey let
us know that “attentive care must be devoted to the conditions which give a
present experience a worthwhile meaning” (p. 49). All individuals, Dewey pointed
out, contribute to the process of meaning making (p. 56). Some 30 years later,
Freire (1968) discussed “problem-posing education” where students and teachers
engage in dialogue where “the teacher is no longer merely the one-who-teaches,
but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while
being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which
all grow” (p. 67). This emphasis on critical literacy, later revisited by
scholars such as Henry Giroux (1992), bell hooks (1984), James Paul Gee (1987),
and James Porter (1986), appealed to my own belief that learning takes place in
context. In other words, as Freire and Macedo (1987) pointed out so
convincingly, teachers need to read the word as well as the world in which our
students function. My pedagogical framework, in other words, was influenced by
my belief that learning is contextual, and that current events can contribute
greatly to students’ acquisition of critical literacy skills which are not only
necessary in academic settings but also in workplace settings and in the
day-to-day interactions with friends, family, and community members. It was also
shaped by Manuel Castells’ (1997) concept of “project identities” which allow
students and teachers to “build a new identity that redefines their position in
society and, by doing so, seek the transformation of overall social structure”
(p. 8). To accomplish this, it is necessary to leave our comfort zones and to
address preconceived notions, stereotypes, and, most importantly, strategies for
transforming and changing how we construct ourselves within a specific
Marilea’s comment about
Clinton’s weakness — being a woman — was part of a presentation to her
classmates. Her unwillingness to consider the implications of her comments, did
not follow the pedagogical concepts I had outlined at the beginning of the
course on gendered language uses, nor did it follow the notion of critical
literacy acquisition. For her talk, Marilea had chosen Hillary Clinton’s and
Barack Obama’s language patterns during the presidential campaign. She had put
together a PowerPoint presentation, and she had brought in a video clip of
Clinton and Obama during one of the final debates, where discussions ranged from
economic stimulus packages to the war in Iraq, to healthcare, and to gay
marriage. I expected that Marilea would follow up her initial statement by
further explanation that would show that this sentiment was untenable in 2008.
She would, I was sure, let us know that she based her statement on historical
data — women have historically been discriminated against in politics, the
workforce, and education[i].
We had all heard of the famous glass ceiling. We had discussed the scarcity of
women CEOs, and the “glass cliff,” a term coined to show the “precarious and
short-lived” tenure of female executives (Proudford, 2007, p. 434). We had a
hard time naming women politicians except for Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano
and Dianne Feinstein. We had read that, historically, women were placed into
nurturing roles, not those of politicians. We had read Anna Julia Cooper (1892)
and her argument for the higher education of women. Marilea had written a very
pertinent response paper on Cooper’s (1892) expose of the follies of late 19th
century attitudes toward women’s roles in private and public spheres. My
students couldn’t fathom that anybody could still consider women as dangerous if
they were educated. Such attitudes were outmoded and would never enter into 21st
century discussions on gender roles. We were, they all agreed, “way beyond” this
kind of thinking.
Why then, did she insist that
“Hillary will never be president”? Why did she use the candidate’s first name
when we had just talked about how we show respect by using last names? I
imagined and hoped that Marilea would include a slide that discussed current
U.S. politics, popular culture, media coverage, and how easily people are
influenced by what is handed to them on a media platter. We had spent more than
two months analyzing a multitude of texts, videos, images, and sound clips to
dig deep into what influences American perceptions of gender and sexuality. But
my very bright and very conscientious student didn’t offer any further insights
about her statement. And I didn’t get a chance to ask additional questions to
encourage students to do what I thought I had taught them throughout the
semester: think critically, apply the rhetorical principles to question
modernist truth, explore their own biases, and reflect on the irresponsibility
of unfounded assumptions.
Instead, the rest of the class
of mostly Anglo working and middle-class 21-26 year olds chimed in. Angelina
called out: “You are right. There is no way she’ll get enough votes. It would be
Bill Clinton all over again.” Michelle followed up: “She is a bully. She doesn’t
even want to talk to the press.” And Theresa delivered the ultimate
condemnation: “Did you see the dress she wore? And her hair? She needs a fashion
consultant.” Joey brought in the dreaded husband: “What would Bill do? He’d run
the country again. He couldn’t help himself.”
Opinions were shooting from one
end of the classroom to the other. I could feel the missiles being directed at
Clinton, the personification of what seemed to be scary, unprecedented,
unwanted. I was reminded of the words of Anna Julia Cooper (1892) when she
points out the reasons why many men did not want to sanction the higher
education of women, “higher education was incompatible with the shape of the
female cerebrum, and that even if it could be acquired it must inevitably unsex
woman, destroying the lisping, clinging, tenderly helpless, and beautifully
dependent creatures whom men would so heroically think for and so gallantly
fight for, and giving in their stead a formidable race of blue stockings with
corkscrew ringlets and other spinster propensities” (p. 65).
In this excerpt, Cooper (1892)
discusses 19th century male attitudes and fears about women’s
education, but her comments come very close to what students found so
“unwomanly” in Clinton, and what the media had promoted for many years. For
example, Camille Paglia (1996) in The New Republic, pegged Clinton as an
ice queen, a drag queen, a snow queen, a man-woman, and, if that’s not enough, a
bitch-goddess (pp. 24-26). A Spy Magazine (1993) cover shows Clinton
barely clad in black leather lingerie, evoking an image of a dominatrix who will
use her sexuality to her best advantage (Cover photo, 1993). Media portrayals of
Clinton’s harshness, single-mindedness, coldness, unsmiling countenance, and
unemotional behavior reinforced stereotypes and fears that Cooper (1892) had
already discussed more than one hundred years ago.
My students had read Cooper
(1892) and many other texts on women’s changing roles in society and also on
media’s influence on gender stereotyping. Our previous discussions of historical
and current gender issues made the initial out-pouring of anti-Clinton
sentiments even more surprising. To analyze our reactions, I decided to revisit
some of the feminist scholars we had read in class, and to investigate our
strong, largely emotional, reactions to Clinton’s candidacy in light of the
theories we had discussed. We needed to explore the exigency for our emotion,
the imperfection in our midst (Bitzer, 1968) that provoked our responses. We
needed a new president, certainly, and we needed to decide, as a country, who
the best choice would be. And before all that, we needed to decide who would be
the candidate for the Democratic Party. The Republicans had already chosen John
McCain, and he had already chosen Sarah Palin. Why did my students harbor such
strong feelings against Clinton, and why did I want to support her and defend
her against the negative outpourings? Why was Barack Obama considered a better
choice, and why was Palin considered a great running mate for McCain by two
thirds of the students in my class?
I knew that my students were
aware of scholarship that addressed women’s historical, social, and political
roles in the U.S. Why, then, could they not apply the critical thinking skills
that they had honed over the course of the semester? Why did emotion outshine
reason in both my male and female students? If I prescribed to John Gray’s
(1992) theory that “men are from Mars, and women are from Venus,” then we should
at least have had some of the students move away from emotion and give some
space to reason. If I thought that Deborah Tannen (1990) was right when she
explained that the phrase “you just don’t understand” refers to the overall
inability of men and women to communicate successfully, then why were my male
and female students so successful in their communicative endeavors to undermine
Clinton’s intellectual endeavors, her professional success, and her political
run for presidency?
As Freire and Macedeo (1987)
have pointed out, the world around us shapes our approaches to the words we
learn and the words we use. In retrospect, my initial reading of students’
“words” did not include a reading of the “world” that they inhabited. Certainly,
our backgrounds, our cultural, social, political, and religious affiliations had
an impact on our understanding of who the best choice for president would be.
Students understood the need to elect a president because George W. Bush was
leaving office. To some, this was an imperfection, “a defect, an obstacle,
something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be” (Bitzer,
1968, p. 221). Life, they were sure, would be easier if he could stay for a
third term. According to many, Bush had done an excellent job saving us from
terrorism, bringing democracy to Iraq, and making sure that America’s foes were
kept in check and aliens were kept out of Arizona. But since the American
constitution needed to be upheld, it was urgently necessary to elect a president
who would continue to support Bush’s policies on war, taxes, education, and
healthcare. It was also paramount to make sure that neither Hillary Clinton nor
Barack Obama would stand a chance in the elections, and that instead John McCain
would be elected as the next president.
It was not surprising to hear
these sentiments from my students. The university is happily situated in McCain
country and in a state that has voted Republican for many presidential
elections. But there were some exceptions. From the 1932 to the 1944
presidential elections, Arizonans voted for Franklin Roosevelt four times, and
even though Bill Clinton did not get the Arizona vote in 1992, the population
revised its opinion in 1996 and voted for him 47 to 44 percent (Leip, 2009).
Most students didn’t remember that the state had voted for Bill Clinton. They
also didn’t know that different counties within the state had almost exclusively
voted Democrat ever since the inception of the state, including the county in
which their current academic institution was located. All they knew was that
they needed to be worried about changes in gun control legislation, abortion,
and religious freedom. Hillary Clinton, for many, personified a disruption to
long-held beliefs. It was a disruption that needed to be stopped.
Contexts and Texts: Opinions Unveiled
When I reflected on my reactions
to students’ comments, I realized that I needed to put into practice my
theoretical understanding of Bitzer’s discussion of rhetorical situations.
Clearly, students saw a reason why this situation — the election of a new
president — called for a specific response. I was teaching in Arizona, which was
and is McCain territory. However, we also had enjoyed a successful and
well-liked woman governor for many years. Janet Napolitano wasn’t only a woman;
she was a Democrat in a majority Republican state. Arizona media outlets were
mostly kind to her when she supported education, health care for everybody, and
immigration reform. Sarah Palin was also greeted by a supportive media in the
State of Arizona, but Hillary Clinton’s reception was harsh and biting.
It would be too easy to blame
students for making uninformed statements without looking more closely at what
influenced their decisions and their comments. Their statements might have been
very well informed. The news talked about “Hillary” as if they owned her but
didn’t know what to do with her. She was Hillary mostly, Clinton hardly ever.
Saturday Night Live, a major news source for many of my students, portrayed
her as pushy, catty, frumpy, unemotional, uncaring, and willing to walk over
dead bodies. Although SNL was trying to be funny and sarcastic, the unflattering
portrayal of Clinton seemed to have stuck with many of my students. It was
reinforced by most media outlets, and was taken to new heights by the right.
Michelle Malkin (2007) uses “The Frightful Specter of Hillary Clinton,” as one
of her headlines (Malkin, 2007). Phyllis Schlafly (2008) argues that Clinton
lost the presidential campaign “because she simply is not likeable,” and she
blames “the whining” of feminists (especially Steinem) for the misconception
that women have not achieved equality in the United States (Schlafly, 2008). And
Ben Shapiro (2007), who also authored Brainwashed: How Universities
Indoctrinate America's Youth, sees her as using a “passive-aggressive victim
role” (Shapiro, 2007) If Bill was the anti-Christ, Hillary was the devil
incarnate in a Prada pant-suit for the religious right.
Even though it is tempting to
solely fault media’s anti-feminists and the right side of the country for my
students’ reactions, such an easy solution to the “Hillary”
burning-at-the-stakes leaves out the many liberally minded men and women who
made sure that their voices against Clinton (or for Obama) would be heard.
Oprah, for example, reversed her 2005 support for Hillary Clinton’s presidential
campaign and endorsed Barack Obama in 2008.
A bit closer to home, one of my
colleagues explained to me why she wouldn’t — just couldn’t — support Clinton.
My colleague is one of the strongest and most vocal advocates of women’s rights.
Women are the focus of her research; she makes sure that women are represented
on committees; she is willing to volunteer to make sure that women’s rights,
perspectives, and agendas are part of the agenda; she teaches on historical and
current women’s issues. She is well-respected across campus, and she is
well-known for her feminist research.
Her first comments can be
summarized very briefly: “I just can’t see her as the President. She doesn’t
have what it takes. And I am just worried that she’ll be too influenced by Bill.
She couldn’t build coalitions because everybody would remember him.” Deep down,
at the bottom of my conscious thinking, I too felt a faint flickering of doubt
about Bill’s role in the White House. “The first gentleman” didn’t have a very
convincing ring to it.
Similar to many of my women
colleagues and students, I too was brought up in a traditional, male-dominated
household, was for a long time a registered member of a Christian religion that
strived on patriarchal hierarchies, and went to schools that re-enforced girls’
roles as caretakers and not scientists. And I chose to become an English
professor, not an engineer, computer scientist, biologist, or other high-paying
professional mostly associated with men’s prerogatives. Despite my consistent
training in acceptable women’s roles, I try to listen to the voices of Naomi
Wolf (1991), Judith Lorber (1994), Susan Faludi (1991), Gloria Anzaldúa (1999),
Barbara Ehrenreich (2003), bell hooks (1984) and Betty Friedan (1986) who remind
us of the long-standing gender discrimination in social, cultural, political,
and workplace environments. They also show us our own contributions and our
participation in a gendered and patriarchal community; they point out the
exploitative practices of the advertising and fashion industry; they show us the
importance of the Equal Rights Amendment; they address the backlash against
feminists in the 80s; and they point out the importance of understanding the
connections between racism, sexism, and classism.
“We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!” Have We?
When I reflected on students’
reactions to Clinton, I asked myself many times whether the anti-Clinton
sentiments were based on long-held beliefs about women’s roles in a
well-functioning patriarchal society. As a feminist scholar and teacher, I had
read much about women’s fights for being acknowledged as thinking human beings,
as deserving voting rights and equal rights, and for the right to decide over
their own bodies. In my class readings, I include texts about the suffrage
movement which gained strength with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
We talk about the 1848 Senecca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments” still resonates
with many women’s rights activists. We read Anna Julia Cooper (1892), who
reminds us of men who considered women as mere objects and play-things. She
points to several male compatriots of her time: “Lessing declared that ‘the
woman who thinks is like the man who puts on rouge — ridiculous;’ and Voltaire
in his coarse, flippant way used to say, ‘Ideas are like beards — women and boys
have none.’ Dr. Maginn remarked, ‘We like to hear a few words of sense from a
woman sometimes, as we do from a parrot — they are so unexpected!’ and even the
pious Fenelon taught that virgin delicacy is almost as incompatible with
learning as with vice” (p. 64). She makes sure to discredit these opinions and
to show why women should have a right to a higher education. We also engage in
discussions about Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1898) who in Women and Economics
pointed out women’s abilities to contribute equally to the economic well-being
of the country. In addition, Betty Friedan encourages my students to explore
women’s roles when, in The Feminine Mystique (1963), she addresses
the question that she saw many women ask themselves: “Is this all?” Friedan,
similar to late 19th century feminists, points to the implicit and
explicit gender discrimination in industrialized nations that restricts women in
their endeavors to participate in the political, social, and workplace
communities. Later on, we read Barbara Ehrenreich (2003), who, in Maid to
Order, continues the discussion of women’s role by focusing on the service
industry, showing that women are overwhelmingly employed in underpaid service
The United States, and
especially academia, has certainly progressed in its views on women. Students
learn that women are no longer restricted by their virgin delicacy, and many are
now part of the scholarly elite, full of ideas and always thinking. We can’t
explain why girls avoid math and science after age 11, but it’s not because
girls and women can’t think. When my students read that the Association for
Women in Science (AWIS, 2009) believes that “women in STEM [science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics] are prevented from reaching their full potential —
not because they are less able or less willing — but because of barriers that
exist in scientific workplaces.” (AWIS), they readily agree with AWIS’s
conclusions. As AWIS points out, only eight percent of enrolled graduate
students in engineering were women in 1966, which increased to 20 percent in
2001 (AWIS, 2009). Students were happy to read that, bolstered by the steadily —
even though slowly — climbing numbers, women have continued to move into
male-dominated professions because they are able and willing to work hard, take
on intellectual challenges, and show that they too make important contributions
to politics, science, business, and industry. By 2008, women had become part of
the political landscape in the United States, not only because Hillary Clinton
ran for presidency, but because 24 percent of state legislators were women, and
the country had elected eight women governors.
However, I also address in my
classes that the steady increase of women in positions of authority does not
preclude a continued attitude of condescension in higher education, politics,
industry, and business. In 2005, Lawrence Summers (2005), president of Harvard
University, let it be known at a Conference on “Diversifying the Science &
Engineering Workforce” that the lower number of women in the sciences is due to
“different availability of aptitude at the high end." As he put it, "there are
issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude"
(Summers, 2005, “Remarks”). Discrimination, he pointed out, is not likely since
that would not be smart economically speaking. Socialization is also not a
factor, since research has shown that it isn’t (Summers, 2005 “Remarks”).
Since “research,” not cited in
Summers’s (2005) “Remarks,” has shown that socialization isn’t a factor, my
students address the possibility of women’s inability to think at higher levels.
Lessing and Voltaire, two of the 19th century men’s voices explaining
women’s inferiority, seemed to have influenced Harvard’s former president, who
did resign from his post, but who was given the Charles W. Eliot University
Professorship at Harvard, with offices in the Kennedy School of Government and
the Harvard Business School. And students also learn that he is currently the
director of the White House National Economic Council, promoting tax cuts, but
hopefully no longer promoting differential intrinsic aptitudes. Students have
connected Summers’s (2005) comments with Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s
(1994) Bell Curve, in which the authors argue racial differences in
intelligence persist (Herrnstein and Murray, 1994, chapters 13 and 14).
Considering Barack Obama’s ethnic background, students have pointed out that
such comments might not be wise.
Several of my students pointed
out that the former Harvard President’s comments on women’s aptitude might not
have been popular with a large majority of women and men, but they also
acknowledge that we do continue to see women in positions of authority struggle
to receive recognition. Even when women are recognized as capable, hard-working
and intelligent, their career is often in jeopardy because of social and
cultural stereotypes. When women run for political office, Kira Sanbonmatsu
(2002) reminds students that gender plays a significant role in voters’
preferences. Women politicians were believed to be less qualified to deal with
foreign affairs and the crime problem — “a stereotypically male issue” (p. 27) —
but were seen as being better qualified to protect social security — “a
stereotypically female issue” (p. 27). Clinton, in her campaign, encountered
similar belief systems, being applauded for her health care reform but being
lambasted for her stance on the war in Iraq. Furthermore, her intelligence and
hard work as a lawyer, for example, were continuously undermined and promoted
increased attacks on her character and on her ability to “integrate[…] her
intelligence with her sexuality” (Paglia, 1996, p. 26).
What We Really Want: Women, War, and Peace
Despite my students’ theoretical
knowledge about women’s positions in society, they continued to hold strong
beliefs about women in positions of power. Their viewpoints were close to those
explained by Deborah Rhode and Barbara Kellerman (2007) who point out that
Clinton’s run for presidency, and women’s push into positions of authority, did
not erase gender stereotypes. Their description of gender stereotyping in
leadership roles is in close accordance with many of the experiences attributed
to Clinton’s campaign. As they put it,
men continue to
be rated higher than women on most of the qualities associated with leadership.
People more readily credit men with leadership ability and more readily accept
men as leaders. What is assertive in a man can appear abrasive in a women, and
female leaders risk appearing too feminine or not feminine enough. On one hand,
they may appear too “soft” — unable or unwilling to make the tough calls
required in positions of greatest influence. On the other hand, those who mimic
the “male model” are often viewed as strident and overly aggressive or
ambitious. (p. 7).
My students were exposed to
similar societal perspectives about women than I was and still am. In the
political arena, many media outlets, many reporters, and many talk show hosts
willfully forget that -- even though the Italian Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi, in a 2009 comment, thinks so -- women are not “God’s best gift to
men,” but that they participate in the intellectual, social, and political
landscape of the country. Looking back, it is difficult to know whether Hillary
Clinton’s bid for presidency was undermined by the media’s dislike of her
husband or of her pantsuits. We will never know whether the country would not
have been ready for a woman president, a sentiment that I heard many times
during the democratic convention. “We are at war, you know,” my women’s studies
colleague said. “I know,” I responded, “but why would that disqualify Hillary
Clinton?” “We need a strong leader to get us out of it,” commented my colleague.
“And it needs to be somebody who doesn’t have the history the Clinton’s have.
Nobody will want to negotiate with her.”
My colleague’s comments
reflected a common sentiment that was also explored in a 2004 article on gender
beliefs and social relations. As Ridgeway and Correll (2004) point out in their
work, “when hegemonic gender beliefs are effectively salient in a social
relational context, they bias the extent to which a woman, compared to a similar
man, asserts herself in the situation, the attention she receives, her
influence, the quality of her performances, the way she is evaluated, and her
own and others' inferences about her abilities at the tasks that are central to
the context” (p. 519). Unfortunately, these sentiments about women’s
differential abilities — seen as a negative — also influenced the world in which
my students lived. Even though Clinton was well-liked overseas, and even though
women leaders around the world have successfully led their countries through
peace, have avoided war through diplomacy and negotiation, and have also waged
war as successfully and unsuccessfully as their male counterparts, my students
remembered and were influenced by the media and also by historical depictions of
women. They didn’t know that many other countries -- among them Sri Lanka,
Israel, India, Great Britain, Portugal, Pakistan, Germany, Canada, Poland,
Turkey, Ireland, New Zealand, and Panama — have had women prime ministers,
chancellors, or presidents, and have often managed to promote a more positive
image of their countries than other male-headed democracies.
I did have some advantages over
my students in developing an appreciation for women’s leadership. During my
elementary to high school years in Austria, we heard much — and always wanted to
know more — about one Austrian woman who caught our imagination not because she
was the mother of Marie Antoinette, but because she married for love, had 16
children, instituted mandatory schooling, and ruled over an entire empire with
what we considered “panache.” In other words, she was larger than life. Maria
Theresa, empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for 40 years in the mid 18th
century, is considered one of the most capable rulers in the long succession of
Habsburg emperors. She initiated financial and educational reforms, increased
the army by 200 percent, and fought Fredrick the Great of Prussia to regain the
lands that had been taken from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Several treaties
ensured that land would change hands without further warfare. She established
the first military academy as well as an academy of engineering science in 1754.
She also insisted that the University of Vienna be given more money to fund the
Even though I have wondered
whether K-12 education could incorporate a variety of accomplished and
less-accomplished women leaders around the world, I don’t blame them for
neglecting to teach us about peace instead of war and to teach us about
matriarchal systems instead of patriarchal systems. I am, however, convinced
that a college and university education, which includes a liberal arts
education, is responsible to teach students an appreciation of critical and
analytical explorations that allow them to participate successfully in an
ever-changing world. Because of this conviction, I wanted for students to look
at different sources to increase their understanding of the complexity of gender
roles in current U.S. politics. I wanted them to learn about Hillary Clinton’s
work not through her campaign promises, one-liners, and brief comments that were
intended to get the attention of a crowd, but by reading various articles and
books published by her or about her. Clinton’s autobiography, which can easily
be excerpted for students, provides a good starting point for moving away from
media-dominated commentary that mostly excluded the work that Clinton considered
important as a lawyer and politician.
Clinton’s (2003) Living
History showed her perspicacity and her ardent belief in the rights of
children — and everybody — to healthcare, the rights of women to be treated as
humans, and the rights of all to be active participants in a community, because,
as she put it in a previous book (Clinton, 1996), “it takes a village.” Clinton
provides a chronological history, including, among other things, her work with
Marian Wright Edelman on school desegregation in the South in 1972. She explains
very convincingly that women’s rights are human rights; and she is very candid
when she admits that her health care task force under Bill Clinton was not
successful, even though she is glad that the task force tried to change current
policies that leave millions of people un-insured.
What students found especially
pertinent in her discussions is her acknowledgment of her role as a woman and as
a professional. She outlines the paradox that she experienced over and over
It seemed that
people could perceive me only as one thing or the other -- EITHER a professional
woman OR a conscientious hostess. Gender stereotypes trap women by categorizing
them in ways that don't reflect the true complexities of their lives. It was
becoming clear to me that people who wanted me to fit into a certain box,
traditionalist or feminist, would never be entirely satisfied with me as me --
which is to say, with my many different, and sometimes paradoxical roles.
In my own mind,
I was traditional in some ways and not in others. I cared about the food I
served our guests, and I also wanted to improve the delivery of health care for
all Americans. To me, there was nothing incongruous about my interests and
activities. (Clinton, 2003, pp. 140-141)
Clinton’s (2003) comments
reflect many of the discussions that professional women in all fields have to
contend with on a regular basis. Women have to defend themselves for a wide
range of reasons, including their choice of staying single, of not having
children, or of juggling a family with their professional lives, of putting
their children in childcare, of taking off from work to stay with their kids, or
of requiring their partners and husbands to contribute in equal parts to the
dreaded “H” word: household chores. Susan Faludi’s (1991) book raised awareness
of the contradicting positions that women have to juggle, being expected to
perform traditional housework but also being expected to contribute to the
economic well-being of the family (Faludi, 1991). Clinton’s (2003) discussion of
her diverse roles fits nicely into discussions of women’s roles in leadership
positions. As Rhode and Kellerman (2007) argue, “women are expected to be
nurturing, not self-serving, and entrepreneurial behaviors viewed as appropriate
in men are often viewed as distasteful in women” (p. 8).
Many of my students remembered
Clinton’s comment about “baking cookies” which brought a collective gasp to the
nation. She refers to the incident in Living History:
asked whether I could have avoided an appearance of conflict of interest when my
husband was Governor. I said, “You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and
baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession,
which I entered before my husband was in public life. And I have worked very
hard to be as careful as possible.”
I could have
said, “Look, short of abandoning my law firm partnership and staying home, there
was nothing more I could have done to avoid the appearance of a conflict of
suggested that I talk to reporters a second time. On the spot, I had a press
conference. It had little effect. Thirteen minutes after I answered the
question, a story ran on the AP wire. CNN quickly aired one too.
It turned into
a story about my alleged callousness towards stay-at-home-mothers. Republicans
labeled me the ”ideological leader of a Clinton-Clinton Administration that
would push a radical-feminist agenda. (Clinton, 2003, pp.109-110)
This comment about cookies and
tea stayed in the American consciousness for many years and was also picked up
by my students. Discussed and broadcast on March 26, 1992, on Ted Koppel’s
(1992) PBS Frontline, the infamous cookies came back to haunt her during
the presidential campaign. Even though, as Jackie Judd on the show pointed out,
Clinton “went on to say feminism means the right to choose work, or home, or
both; the damage had been done. She'd been tagged an elitist and an
ultra-feminist” (PBS, 1992, “Frontline”). Ruth Mandel, from Rutgers University,
pointed out in the same show that the comments in the New York Post which
called Hillary Clinton "a buffoon, an insult to most women," is “the old kind of
feeling about ‘uppity’ women. Stay in your place. Here's someone who's stepping
out of her place, here's someone … you're able to describe with all the old
stereotypes. … If she's a woman, she's supposed to stand at his side, smile,
look pretty, be quiet and say that everything he does is fine” (PBS, 1992,
“Frontline”). In other words, it is the well-behaved women who should not be
seen or be heard[ii].
What caught my students’
attention about the Frontline interviews was the strong sense, from both
political parties, that Hillary Clinton was a smart woman. It was an asset to
some, and a threat to others. Ted Koppel, in his unfortunate way with words,
perceives Clinton to be “a woman who is so smart and apparently independent in
some strange way” (PBS, 1992, “Frontline”). Why Koppel called Clinton as
“independent in some strange way” we will never know for sure. We do know,
however, that her independence — and maybe her smartness — led to many
conservative attacks when Bill Clinton ran for office in 1992. According to Lisa
Burns (2008), Hillary Clinton was referred to as Lady Macbeth a number of times
during that time (p. 142), evoking Shakespeare’s story of Macbeth’s wife who
goads her husband to commit regicide so that he can become King and she can
become Queen of Scotland.
Put Your Ear to the Pulse of the Time:
Encouraging Critical Thinking
My students had read that women
who are seen as threatening, as independent, as smart, or as non-conforming to
current standards have been vilified for many centuries. Since popular culture
no longer accepts to lock up women in the attic, or in a mental institution,
strategies for painting them as unacceptable to society have changed. Media
conglomerates, religious groups, and internet communities have taken on the role
of judge and jury, and the U.S. public has taken on the role of silent
bystanders who acquiesce to the sound-bites presented to us. Maybe we were
Clinton supporters, but did she really need to make that comment about cookies
and tea? Did she really have to be so abrasive? Couldn’t she be a bit more
emotional? Why didn’t she hug babies on the campaign trail? She could have worn
more feminine clothes instead of pant-suits. She could have styled her hair
differently, worn her purse differently. She could have been more like Sarah
Palin, who seemed to personify “true womanhood” and who was called the
“present-day Esther” by the religious right (Strang, 2008). She could have been
“woman” as defined by a patriarchal system that we so ardently have fought
against for decades.
“Remember Sarah Palin,” my
friend said. “She was something! She was so pretty. She was so elegant. Her
clothes, her hair, everything about her was just amazing.” He couldn’t explain
why everything was so amazing about Palin, but he could tell me that Clinton was
just the opposite. “I couldn’t vote for her. She is such a bully. She isn’t
really a woman. She scares me!” I admitted to him that I was scared too, not by
Clinton, but by people who thought that Palin personified womanhood, that she
was what men — and many women — considered an asset to a political campaign. Did
she bake cookies? Did she hug babies? Did she wear dresses? Was her hair all
pretty and long? Did she play into our perceptions of a good woman? Certainly,
the out-of-wedlock grandchild didn’t please the religious right even though they
bravely stood by her side until the bitter end when McCain and Palin lost their
bids for presidency and vice-presidency.
My friend isn’t particularly
partisan, but he had listened to mostly mainstream news, had taken in
information from talk shows on popular TV stations, and had discussed the
campaign with his friends who too were getting their information from the same
sources. He didn’t question the validity and objectivity of the news, nor did he
question the underlying assumptions that influence the media and that also
influence the viewer. It didn’t matter to my friend that Clinton could point to
a successful public career. It didn’t matter that she fought for children’s
healthcare, helped reform Arkansas’ education system, and advocated for women’s
rights all over the nation and the world. It didn’t matter that Chelsea Clinton
didn’t show any ill effects of growing up with a strong woman role model. Nor
did my friend think twice about how the comments would be interpreted by his
career-oriented wife whose baking skills scared her children and her husband. In
principle, he did, as most men, “support gender equality — but in practice [he
failed] to structure [his] life to promote it” (Rhode & Kellerman, 2007, p. 11).
Similarly, my students were
ardent supporters of equal rights for women, but they were not practiced in
connecting what they learned in the classroom to situations that exposed hidden
assumptions and latent stereotypes. As teachers, we can encourage students to
think critically about their own roles in perpetuating current value systems by
challenging their assumptions about gender roles, race relations, sexual
orientation, or class systems. In other words, we can encourage them to
acknowledge and take responsibility for what they communicate and how they
communicate it. As Gunther Kress (2005) points out in his discussion on new
forms of texts, knowledge, and learning, such “agency of the individual who has
a social history, a present social location, an understanding of the potentials
of the resources for communication, and who acts transformationally on the
resources environment and, thereby, on self are requirements of communication”
(p. 20). With this agency then comes responsibility to pay attention to how
texts, written or visual, are encoded and constructed, how these texts came into
existence, and how the consumer and reader of these texts is manipulated in
her/his decoding of the texts.
In addition to helping students
understand the importance and impact of their individual agency, teachers need
to encourage students to see themselves as members of various discourse
communities that influence their perceptions of the world around them. Such
group membership influences students’ social and cultural identities, which in
turn shape how they interact with members of other groups. Stephen Kucer (2004)
put it well when he points out that “the group attempts to socialize — directly
or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously — the individual into thinking and
behaving in particular ways that are appropriate to the group's view of itself
and its relationship with the broader society” (p. 205). Our students, then,
follow guidelines which “impact the individual's beliefs and behaviors, and they
frame his or her interpretations of and interactions with others. The knowledge,
values, and behaviors that an individual comes to reflect, therefore, are not
simply the products of his or her own unique and independent psychological
interactions with the world. They also are the products of interactions and
experiences with the various significant social groups of which the individual
is a member, as well as the groups' interactions and experiences with other
groups in the world” (p. 205). If students and teachers understand the impact of
group membership and social networks, we can learn to understand the implicit
and explicit reactions to images of women in positions of power, news
broadcasts, campaign advertising, or readings that undermine societal norms.
Teachers certainly need to be
aware of the impact of their students’ group membership and individual student
agency; however, we also need to understand our own agency and our participation
in groups and social networks. In other words, we need to challenge our own
assumptions that we bring to the classroom. Our behaviors and literacy practices
are part of a larger network which affects our social identity. We are also part
of what James Gee calls “dominant discourse” (p. 31), which is “inherently
ideological” (p. 30). To make explicit our group memberships and our memberships
in various discourse communities can help us contextualize our reasons for using
specific pedagogical tools, incorporating specific topics into our curriculum,
and encouraging agency, community outreach, or service learning.
If we believe, with Stephen
Kucer (2004), that “by our very nature, we are social beings,” and that we
participate in community building, we are responsible for teaching students how
to participate successfully and constructively in these communities. As The New
London Group (1996) points out, the fundamental purpose of education is to
“ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to
participate fully in public, community, and economic life” (np). This requires,
then, that our pedagogy include a “teaching and learning relationship that
creates the potential for building learning conditions leading to full and
equitable social participation” (np). To create such environments, it is
necessary to encourage students to question established social narratives such
as gendered narratives and to participate in rewriting these narratives to show
the shifting nature of our civic lives, incorporating what The New London Group
calls “civic pluralism.” Such pluralism creates spaces “where differences are
actively recognized; where these differences are negotiated in such a way that
they complement each other; and where people have the chance to expand their
cultural and linguistic repertoires so that they can access a broader range of
cultural and institutional resources” (np). Creating these spaces is the
responsibility of an inclusive liberal arts education to which students in
colleges and universities are entitled. To be successful in this endeavor means
to incorporate learning experiences that allows students to be critical and
analytical participants in their varied discourse communities, that encourages
them to re-evaluate unexamined beliefs, and that promotes social and cultural
identity development that encourages openness and acceptance of difference.
Moving On: We’ve Got a Long Ways to Go!
Newspapers, magazines, and talk
shows vilified Hillary Clinton’s character during Bill Clinton’s years in the
White House and throughout her run for presidency. David Rothkopf (2009), from
the Washington Post, tells us that Hillary Clinton “has drawn more
attention for her moods, looks, outtakes and (of course) relationship with her
husband than for, well, her work revamping the nation's foreign policy” (Rothkopf,
2009). Her handbag and scarf choices, and her weight and hair, he points out,
have drawn more attention even from self-proclaimed Clinton supporters than her
work on foreign politics. He calls reporters from the Washington Post to
task after they “mused about whether a brew called Mad Bitch would be the beer
of choice for the secretary of state” (Rothkopf, 2009). Hillary Clinton, more
than 250 years after Empress Maria Theresa ruled over an empire “where the sun
never set,” more than a 100 years after the Seneca Falls Declaration, close to a
100 years after women received the right to vote, and in an age when the Equal
Rights Amendment has not been ratified by all states, can still say with Anna
Julia Cooper (1892): “the chance of the seedling and of the animalcule is all I
ask — the chance for growth and self development, the permission to be true to
the aspirations of my soul without incurring the blight of your censure and
ridicule” (Cooper, 1892, p. 66).
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Even though Hillary Clinton was the first woman who was a serious
contender for presidency, several women, such as Victoria Woodhall in
1872, Belva Lockwood in 1884 and 1888, and Shirley Chisholm in 1972,
have run for presidency in the United States. (See Mandel, 2007).
Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
(2007), pointed out that “well-behaved women seldom make history,” a
phrase that has made it onto many bumper stickers and has led to much
discussion among women and men.