October 24, 2000

Panel Discusses First Lady From Feminist Perspective

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“Hillary piques our interest,” opened Prof. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, human development, the moderator of yesterday’s discussion on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s impact on history, politics and culture in American society.

Titled “Hillary: Feminist Perspectives,” the panel of seven academics presented a critical look at Clinton as a public figure and woman in the 21st century, with particular emphasis on her historic position as a First Lady now pursuing her own candidacy.

In providing a historic perspective, Prof. Ann Lane, women’s studies, University of Virginia, drew parallels between First Ladies Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Both women were uppity, breaking out of the boundaries of the traditional roles of women,” Lane said. “They were both strongly hated or loved, and both faced severe vilification. They both loved their husbands, and suffered immensely because of them.”

Lane highlighted the complexity of their personal relationships, explaining that though women have criticized Clinton and Roosevelt for not leaving their unfaithful husbands, the First Ladies also enjoyed political advantages because of the affiliation.

Lane also made note of the tendency to treat a candidate’s moral character rather than their political person. “Hillary is struggling for a place in a male-dominated world,” she said. “She is tough, not warm and fuzzy.”

Prof. Kathryn Abrams, law, categorized her own “Hillary fatigue” as a sub-species of general political fatigue and mentioned her disappointment with the First Lady’s vacillating position on the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 advocated by the president.

“This was a test of her commitment,” Abrams said. “Her work with the Children’s Defense Fund and various other groups conflicted with the outcome of this bill, which exacerbated poverty for children already below the poverty line.”

Abrams, though skeptical, hoped the current candidacy would be an opportunity for the First Lady to establish her “own political identity and her own political agenda.”

Prof. Michele Moody-Adams, philosophy, focused on the relationship between media and politicians in determining the line between public and private life.

“It’s sad when gossip and innuendo substitute facts,” she said, raising the question of who is qualified to judge private matters.

She pointed to the ideas of “the personal as political,” “our sense of a right to know,” and the “exhibitional cult of tell-all books and confessional talk-shows” as causes of the unprecedented scrutiny to which the Clintons were subjected.

Prof. Daryl Bem, psychology, emphasized the need for a “delicate balance between the radical individualism and responsibility to collectivity.” He referred to the book It Takes A Village as an emblem of Hillary’s ideology of achieving the balance of individualism and responsibility to others.

Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor relations and research in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations, focused on the ambivalence of New York union leaders and workers towards Hillary’s political stance.

“Workers are uneasy and anxious about Hillary,” Bronfenbrenner said. “She didn’t reach out to them, and she’ll have to convince workers she is going to fight for the issues that affect them.”

Bronfenbrenner also noted the trends of longer hours, fewer benefits, down-sizing and out-sourcing that were concerning workers and unions.

“Unions and workers have seen her commitment to women and children, but she hasn’t addressed their concerns of safety, job security and immigrant conditions,” she added.

While many of the panelists were critical of Hillary’s political past, Prof. Mary Katzenstein, government, highlighted distinctions emerging in the Senate campaign.

With regards to the “main-streaming of feminism,” Katzenstein advised that feminists keep their expectations low when it came to campaigns.

“What does this race mean for feminists?” she asked. “Hillary put it best herself when she said, ‘I believe in change, one step at a time.'”

Prof. Theodore Lowi, government, remarked that Hillary’s candidacy was a fascination. “The stuff of fascination is scandal,” he said, adding that the candidacy includes a legacy of betrayal, which often undermines her political ability.

Brumberg closed by emphasizing the need for generational perspectives and intergenerational interaction when discussing Hillary, politics and feminism.

The forum was sponsored by the Women’s Studies Program and the Stephen H. Weiss Student Community Interaction Initiative.

Archived article by Tanvi Chheda