Why Hillary can't win

Clinton's toughest battle of all is against a collective mindset that ruthlessly limits the roles female politicians may fulfil, says Mary Evans

March 13, 2008

On 4 March, the delegate-rich states of Ohio and Texas voted in the primary elections to select party candidates and gave Hillary Clinton important victories in her race for the US presidency.

Despite these victories, Ms Clinton's position remains uncertain. The relatively young, black Barack Obama has secured such a status, and such a following, that some already speak of him as being the first black President. Indeed, Democrat voters in the primaries have had history at their command: they can vote for (potentially) the first non-white president or the first woman president.

Yet, in this race for the nomination, it is possible to see that - notwithstanding differences in policies, campaign strategies, funding and all the rest - Mr Obama always had a huge advantage over Ms Clinton. He is male, and the advantages of masculinity are still such as to afford considerable political advantages, not least in the scope it gives a candidate to embody those politically vital virtues of a capacity for change and a capacity for protection, the capacities for both a degree of aggression and a degree of care. In the current climate, this allows him a greater access to an agenda of change (however rhetorical) than Ms Clinton.

The dynamic of male versus female candidate has been a rerunning of an ancient one in which men are allowed (indeed expected) to be those who promote change and yet offer that sense of traditional masculine protection for taking electorates in apparently unconventional directions. For women, politics has always offered a more restricted ground for manoeuvre, in which defence of the status quo (or the fantasy of a return to a vanished status quo) can be hugely successful (a ground that Margaret Thatcher exploited to such advantage) or of relatively uncontentious moral positions such as the value of peace or non-violence.

Ms Clinton did not, in the years after 9/11, choose to endorse that familiar female agenda of resistance to armed conflict and to the practice of sending sons to war. In this choice, she has obviously dissociated herself from the sympathies of those who did not see the war in Iraq as a necessary or defensive war (as Mrs Thatcher managed to suggest of the Falklands campaign), and she abandoned a position that might have allowed her to connect with those people - men and women, but perhaps more clearly women - who could see no sense or political advantage in killing their sons or large numbers of civilians. In short, Ms Clinton appeared to support aggression, and in doing so she challenged both traditional stereotypes about women and feminist views on the different way that women should "do" politics.

However determined and however hardworking she may be, Ms Clinton (or any other woman candidate) must confront entrenched and largely unspoken ideas about the space women can occupy in politics.

It would appear that in the 20th and 21st centuries the world still expects women to defend and maintain the domestic space. In the case of the Clinton/Obama struggle for nomination, Ms Clinton did much to demonstrate her command of this part of the world. But in a sense this simply reinforced her disadvantages; by emphasising her concerns about health and education she reinforced all those expectations that suggest that it is women who care about/work in/maintain these contexts. The terrible paradox still remains that while women do much of the day-to-day "care" in the world, it is men who control its direction. A political association with caring thus can have the effect of furthering the political marginalisation of women within the domestic. At the same time, the candidate who appears to care for those institutions that most immediately support everyday life comes to occupy the political and social space of the careful social reformer: valuable, worthy and dull. To anyone watching the two Democrat candidates at work, this difference appears striking. Thus, despite the assertion that we have become "risk averse" in the 21st century, there is still good reason to suppose that a degree of risk, the quality sometimes described as "edginess", is a huge political attribute and that programmes of reform (with their associations with detailed, slow amelioration) have less appeal than programmes of "change".

The question, however, is whether, in 2008, there is a space for that political "edginess" to be a characteristic that both genders can share. Notwithstanding feminist efforts to destabilise gender identity, conventional ideas about male/female and masculinity/femininity still exist and affect the ways in which we vote and in particular the degree, and kind, of agency we allow to women.

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