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Does Hillary Have an Inner Bella?

| January 16, 2008

In thanking her supporters following her dramatic comeback win in New Hampshire January 8, Hillary Clinton said, “Over the last week, I listened to you and, in the process, found my own voice.” And for that moment at least, she banished the cantankerous, frustrated candidate who acted as though passion and competence could not coexist in a leader. The nation saw a woman who apparently had turned around thousands of voters, most of them women, over the course of a few short winter days by finally showing, rather than telling, how much she cared.

Things happen quickly in politics. It was almost as dramatic as the turning point in the career of another controversial woman from New York three decades before, only that time the moment was decidedly unplanned and politically disastrous. Many things have changed since then, but the obsession with acceptable behavior for women seeking political power has not let up.

On a hot day at the end of her hard-fought Senate primary campaign in 1976, Congresswoman Bella Abzug shot her mouth off one time too many. Her staff had begun to hear rumors that The New York Times was going to endorse her in a tight race with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It looked very good. But asked the perennial question in a party primary, “If you lost, would you endorse Moynihan?” Abzug barreled right past the perennial answer. As she explained later, “I could not actively campaign for a person who had not renounced the policies of Nixon and Ford.” She lost the Times endorsement. She lost the primary—by less than one percent. Principled and passionate, but not politic.

In whatever way Hillary Clinton recasts her campaign after the lessons of Iowa and New Hampshire, she will not make such a foolhardy mistake. She is careful and shrewd and strategic—perhaps to compensate for a weakness she acknowledged in yesterday’s Nevada debate, that she gets “impatient” and “frustrated,” a shortcoming she shares with Bella. But, unlike Bella, Hillary may get the job she is seeking. The coming weeks will tell us if her moments of principle and passion at the end of the New Hampshire race were a sign, as some hope, that she is finding her Inner Bella.

Her background suggests a certain Bella-like commitment—her undergraduate activism against the war in Vietnam (Bella was one of the founders of Women Strike for Peace) and her work with the Children’s Defense Fund (Bella, along with Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, introduced a major child care bill in 1971, which Nixon vetoed). Even Hillary’s health care fiasco was built of a brave and radical vision for change. (Bella once said, “I’ve spent a lifetime in challenge. There’s no way you can create any meaningful change unless you do that.”)

Moreover, she worked alongside Bella on women’s issues—joining her at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in August 1995. When Bella heard that Hillary was interested, she told her staff, “If she wants to go, the way to do it is to prepare in advance. Go to Copenhagen first [the World Summit for Social Development in March 1995]. Meet with the negotiators and the women’s groups in developing countries, so when she gets to Beijing, she’s not just one more First Lady who’s there.” And that’s what Hillary did. She was a great hit there, because—as an observer noted—she “spoke from a position of real substance.”

Based on these accomplishments, Hillary calls herself an “agent of change,” but she seems to feel compelled to play down the passion and play up her know-how against her more passionate but less experienced rival. Many of her supporters argue that she needs to appeal both to those who are afraid of a powerful women and those who don’t think a woman can be Commander in Chief. Linguistic professor Deborah Tannen describes the double bind a woman candidate like Hillary—and Bella in her day—faces: “To the extent that a woman is feminine, she’s seen as weak. To the extent that she puts it aside and is forceful, aggressive and decisive, she’s not seen as a good woman.” Yet if Hillary so much as mentions something so obvious as the gender imbalance in the race, she faces the other double bind of being accused of playing the “gender card.” If anything, Hillary appears to be intent on playing her cards right.

We can hope that she has high-value cards left to play when the time is right, and that in the privacy of her own counsel she is committed to her own words: “When women around the world say to me, ‘I am the Bella Abzug’ from somewhere, I know what they really mean is that they’ll never give up,” fighting “on behalf of what families need, on behalf of peace, on behalf of civil society.”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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