When She Ran, Vol. 3 By Joshua Watkins

First Lady, First Problem: On the Criticisms of ‘90s Hillary

Welcome to When She Ran, a GirlSense and NonSense series to celebrate female leadership in the political realm during Women’s History Month. For candidates and voters alike, women’s issues have been at the forefront of the 2016 presidential election, ranging from reproductive rights to equal pay to confronting what it means to be a feminist. But as campaign history shows, 2016 is far from alone.

As the primary season slogs on, seemingly indefinitely, the necessity (or illusion thereof) to distinguish among candidates at the intra-party level becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. Televised debates produce the same questions and elicit the same answers. Every state result leads a new (re)cycle of delegate tracking and speculation about who maintains a plausible path to the nomination. The policy positions outlined by candidates are either contrasted with or disregarded in favor of dissecting and amplifying a past record, a past vote, a past remark. 

This is particularly true of Hillary Clinton, whose vote as a Senator to authorize the war in Iraq has been a rather salient issue in both her 2008 and 2016 campaigns. Yet compared to 2008, Clinton’s 2016 run has also seen a new focus in berating the Secretary’s past: her actions as First Lady, especially in regards to her support (at the time) of the 1994 crime bill, which has been criticized for creating a culture of mass incarceration, and welfare reform in 1996. Hillary was a national political figure in the 1990s—there’s no denying that—but she also wasn’t elected; people voted her husband into office, not her. 

Which begs the question: are criticisms of Hillary’s time as First Lady justified?

Many who dislike Hillary use her campaigning and support for her husband’s policies as evidence against her trustworthiness on issues of welfare and criminal justice now, claiming that her actions are proof of her inability to make progressive decisions in executive office. (A large percentage of these individuals are also making the argument that Hillary’s time as First Lady shouldn’t hold weight as executive experience. To those people, I ask: WHICH IS IT?) 

What these charges fail to consider is the traditionalistic norms the role of First Lady is bound by. Consider for a moment what the response would have been if Hillary had publicly denounced the policies of the Bill Clinton administration, and ask what possible value there is from a first lady dissenting from the president. In such a scenario, the mediated narrative would focus much more on the split in ideology than the actual policy itself. And while a president is granted various means through the operation of government to justify their policymaking decisions, the first lady isn’t afforded those same opportunities. 

Besides, all of this assumes that Hillary played a role in the formulation of these policies. 

In political science, we (or I, in that one paper in grad school) discuss the “double bind” for female electoral candidates—a consequence of pervasive heteronormativity in campaign communication. This double bind—that a female running for office must simultaneously create an image of leadership, authority, and rationale while branding herself with the long-held markers of femininity, such as beauty and elegance—presents a nearly-impossible-to-maneuver terrain in which females are under heightened scrutiny for image perception than their male counterparts. Hillary has endured this in both of her runs, and even now still has to go through great strides to convince voters she’s “authentic” and “personable.” 

But for first ladies, there’s not even the opportunity for a double bind. There is a singular perception to which they must assimilate. In the 1990s, Clinton was scrutinized as being too independent, her own accomplishments considered a drawback to Bill’s campaign and administration. Her previous residence in the White House included efforts to appear softer, which meant denying her own ambitions and scaling back her involvement in policymaking, particularly after her failed attempt at universal health care early in her husband’s tenure. She abided by the public’s desire, because even now, but especially then, the cost of violating gender norms in politics is tangible. But by doing so, Hillary is now enduring the cost of shifting from the persona commonly defined as “presidential.” More simply put, Hillary is forced to endure criticisms from every front, even though she may have had no part in formulating the policies of her husband and was structurally bound from dissenting. And while from a technical standpoint, norms are not so inflexible as to never be changed, I find it difficult to believe that a Hillary who was being pressured into remaking her image into a stereotypically feminine mold would be lauded, much less supported, for breaking away from her husband’s ideology in 1994 or 1996. 

Look, I’m not saying we shouldn’t rely on past records as indicators of what a candidate would do in office. Critical examinations of those asking for our vote are a vital part of building an informed electorate. However, such examinations aren’t beneficial or illuminating unless they account for the extenuating circumstances surrounding a record, and acknowledge the hardline constraints of traditionalism in politics. So no, I don’t care if you criticize Hillary Clinton. But I do care how you criticize Hillary Clinton. 

It’s a distinction worth remembering. 

Connect with Joshua Watkins:
Twitter: @thirdplacesmile
Medium: Josh Watkins