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Choosing Hillary - How Hillary Clinton Became the First Viable Female Candidate

How Hillary Rodham Clinton's Childhood Shaped a Presidential Candidate

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Choosing Hillary - How Hillary Clinton Became the First Viable Female Candidate

Hillary Clinton campaigning in Florida 2008

Doug Benc/Getty Images
Updated November 01, 2011
By throwing her hat into the ring, Hillary Rodham Clinton became more than the country's first viable female presidential candidate.

She also became an iconic image in our shared subconsciousness, symbolizing the plight of women in American society. When Hillary ran for president, we attached so much meaning and significance to her candidacy that we almost guaranteed she would never get a fair shake.

In many ways, Hillary was:

  • the magnifying glass that focused and intensified our cultural perspective on the hopes, dreams, desires, and frustrations of women across America
  • the lightning rod that attracted every spark of anger, sexism, gender bias, vitriol, and unexpressed hatred of women that crackled through media and society during the long, drawn-out campaign for the Democratic nomination
  • the vessel into which we poured our hopes for gender equity, fair treatment, the collapse of the glass ceiling, and the ascension a woman to the highest position in government.
In short, we burdened her with an impossible load that subjected her to high expectations, crushing scrutiny, and the lowest forms of ridicule and debasement. We rallied around her and we trashed her. The media made her out to be both a straight-laced policy-wonk Madonna and a conniving political Whore. She was praised and damned, exalted and demeaned. And we expected her to take it because if she flinched or if she cried, she would be behaving just like a woman. Many saw her not just as one woman, but as representative of Everywoman everywhere.

Expectation vs. Reality

Magnifying glasses crack. Lightning rods topple. Vessels shatter. Hillary Rodham Clinton was not Superwoman, and did not stand in for everywoman everywhere. Yet she was running for President, and she was all we had. In many ways, our intense desire for her to win and our expectations that she would exemplify the most powerful aspects of female leadership - cooperation, flexibility, willingness to listen to others, and empathy - were misguided. In fact, few of us could see that she, more than other most other women, was perhaps hampered by what psychologist Carol Gilligan describes in her book A Different Voice - an inability to speak for herself from a place that accurately and honestly represented her true self.

As a young adult living through the era of the women's movement, consciousness-raising groups, and the feminist rallying cry that 'the personal is political,' Hillary Clinton witnessed women struggling to find their voices. Thus many of us instinctively (and wrongly) assumed that Hillary possessed the desire to speak with this true voice. The fact is that she was either reluctant or unable to do so. If she found it at the eleventh hour of her candidacy as some have claimed, it was already too late in the game.

Hillary's Struggle

Call it likeability, authenticity, or any other term you prefer; but that powerful and appealing human trait that encourages us to reach out and connect to others - turning strangers into friends or supporters - is not innate in all of us. Whatever word you choose, that quality - with its undertones of personal transparency and an 'I'm just like you' kind of intimacy - is something Hillary Rodham Clinton struggled with, not just during her presidential campaign but for much of her life.

In many ways, it is unfortunate and ironic that the first woman who could have conceivably shattered what she termed "the highest, hardest glass ceiling" - thereby turning the Oval Office into a symbolic 'room of one's own' for women everywhere - revealed almost nothing of her true feelings during the campaign. As compared to her husband, former President Bill Clinton, or even her main rival for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Barack Obama, Hillary was consistently viewed as cold, hard, and unemotional.

"Cauterizes Her Emotions"

There's ample reason for this. As writer Gail Sheehy observed nearly a decade ago in the opening sentence of Hillary's Choice, her biography of the then-First Lady, Hillary "rises early, dresses quickly, and cauterizes her emotions" when under siege. And for much of her time in the White House, she was under siege for her failed plan for health care reform; for questionable actions taken in the Whitewater land deals and the White House Travel Office; and for the President's alleged infidelities.

Lessons From a Carpenter's Level

Being real, being emotional, was something Hillary could ill afford; and it was a lesson drummed into her many years earlier. According to Sheehy, Hillary learned it during her childhood. Her father, Hugh Rodman, and her mother, Dorothy Howell Rodman, were her teachers and they were ruthless in their emphasis:

Pop-Pop, as the children called the authoritarian drillmaster at the head of the family, neither offered nor asked for nurturing. Matters of the heart were a fickle distraction in the Rodham household. Life was seen as combat....In the Rodham code any emotional display signaled weakness....

"I wanted my children to be able to keep their equilibrium," Dorothy told me, explaining how she had used a carpenter's level as a visual tool for instruction." She showed it to Hillary and her brothers with the bubble dead center. "Imagine having this carpenter's level inside you," she told them. "You try to keep that bubble in the center. Sometimes it will go way up here," she said, tipping the instrument to show how the bubble could drift, "and you have to bring it back."

Second Nature

Hillary crafted an unshakeable, unbreakable image during her presidential campaign because hiding her emotions had become second nature. She had been burned too many times during her husband's political career to act any differently. The Gennifer Flowers story. The Monica Lewinsky humiliation. The Tammy Wynette "Stand By Your Man" debacle. She had endured extraordinary public scrutiny and criticism thanks to Bill's alleged infidelities. And she had survived.

But the supportive, unflinching wife wasn't who she was or who she was raised to be.

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