What Republican political strategist Karl Rove recently said about Hillary Clinton is not in dispute: “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that” (politico.com). That his statement was completely incorrect is also not up for debate. Yet as anyone who follows politics knows, facts don’t matter. Once a statement is made, it sticks with voters, correct or not (remember the weapons of mass destruction?). Karl Rove knows this, and he accomplished his mission by placing doubt in voters’ minds.
One could argue that his statement has nothing to do with gender, yet I don’t recall that Rove ever expressed concern over Dick Cheney’s poor health. What is more disturbing to me than this one personal attack is the way that women running for public office are treated, by both men in power and by the media. Is the thought of a woman in charge so intimidating that men feel they have no choice but to make up accusations of brain damage? Of course, this tactic is not new; it has been employed ever since women began speaking out and demanding that they be given basic human rights.
In the 1700s, when British writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argued that women should be educated to support themselves and should have the right to pursue any profession—even public office—she was turned into a pariah by her contemporaries.
When Elizabeth Cady Stanton determined that there was a need for a woman’s rights convention in 1848, and proceeded to write A Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions demanding basic human and civil rights for women in the United States, her husband left town and her father tried to bribe her by offering her a piece of land she wanted if she would just give up the silly idea of a public convention.
In the 1960s, when women joined the Civil Rights movement and began working to form a full-fledged women’s movement demanding rights and full participation in creating the laws they were forced to abide by, they were once again ridiculed, as a leader of the Black Power movement famously declared, “The only position for women in this movement is prone” (qtd. in Falco).
In 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro earned the vice presidential slot on the Democratic ticket, she was criticized for her pro-choice stance, and when rivals could not find enough skeletons in her closet, they went after her husband. The Mondale-Ferraro ticket was soundly defeated. It’s interesting to note that such vicious attacks have not been leveled at vice presidential candidates before or since – after all, look at Dan Quayle – until the recent VP run of another woman, Sarah Palin.
In 2008, both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were raked over the coals; one woman was demonized as a ball breaker (it’s difficult to forget the Hillary Clinton Nutcrackers), while the other was overtly sexualized as good masturbation material.*
If you had asked me—as a young woman watching Geraldine Ferraro declare her candidacy in 1984—if we would see a woman president in my lifetime, I would have looked at you as if you had two heads. Of course we would; there was no doubt in my mind. Yet after living all of my adult life in a backlash, I have become somewhat cynical. Today when my students ask me that same question, I grow quiet. No, I don’t believe we will see a female president in my lifetime.
What do I hope? I hope I’m wrong. What do I wish? I wish for a society in which my daughter will not have fewer rights than I did. I have spent the majority of my life advocating for girls and women. Yet when I see Karl Rove working his misogynistic magic, I feel as if I have failed my daughter and her generation. When I begin to experience that sense of defeat, my quiet sadness gives way to palpable anger. And that anger is what keeps me in the fight.
* Author Rebecca Traister details the intense scrutiny both women faced in her book Big Girls Don’t Cry.
Falco, Maria J., ed. Feminist Interpretations of Mary Wollstonecraft. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. Print.