She was born in Russia, fled the pogroms with her family, was raised in Milwaukee, and worked the counter at her father’s general store when she was 8. In early adulthood she made aliyah to Palestine, where she worked on a kibbutz, picking almonds and chasing chickens. She rose in politics, was the first woman in the first Israeli cabinet, soldiered on through war and rumors of war, became the first and so far only woman to be prime minister of Israel. And she knew what it is to be a woman in the world. “At work, you think of the children you’ve left at home. At home you think of the work you’ve left unfinished. . . . Your heart is rent.” This of course was Golda Meir.
Another: She was born in a family at war with itself and the reigning power outside. As a child she carried word from her important father to his fellow revolutionaries, smuggling the papers in her school bag. War and rumors of war, arrests, eight months in jail. A rise in politics—administering refugee camps, government minister. When war came, she refused to flee an insecure border area; her stubbornness helped rally a nation. Her rivals sometimes called her “Dumb Doll,” and an American president is said to have referred to her in private as “the old witch.” But the prime minister of India preferred grounding her foes to dust to complaining about gender bias. In the end, and in the way of things, she was ground up too. Proud woman, Indira Gandhi.
And there is Margaret Hilda Roberts. A childhood in the besieged Britain of World War II—she told me once of listening to the wireless and being roused by Churchill. “Westward look, the land is bright,” she quoted him; she knew every stanza of the old poem. Her father, too, was a shopkeeper, and she grew up in the apartment above the store near the tracks. She went to Oxford on scholarship, worked as a chemist, entered politics, rose, became another first and only, succeeding not only in a man’s world but in a class system in which they knew how to take care of ambitious little grocer’s daughters from Grantham. She was to a degree an outsider within her own party, so she remade it. She lived for ideas as her colleagues lived for comfort and complaint. The Tories those days managed loss. She wanted to stop it; she wanted gain. Just before she became prime minister, the Soviets, thinking they were deftly stigmatizing an upstart, labeled her the Iron Lady. She seized the insult and wore it like a hat. This was Thatcher, stupendous Thatcher, now the baroness.
Great women, all different, but great in terms of size, of impact on the world and of struggles overcome. Struggle was not something they read about in a book. They did not use guilt to win election—it comes up zero if you Google “Thatcher” and “You’re just picking on me because I’m a woman.” Instead they used the appeals men used: stronger leadership, better ideas, a superior philosophy.
* * *
You know where I’m going, for you know where she went. Hillary Clinton complained again this week that sexism has been a major dynamic in her unsuccessful bid for political dominance. She is quoted by the Washington Post’s Lois Romano decrying the “sexist” treatment she received during the campaign, and the “incredible vitriol that has been engendered” by those who are “nothing but misogynists.” The New York Times reported she told sympathetic bloggers in a conference call that she is saddened by the “mean-spiritedness and terrible insults” that have been thrown “at you, for supporting me, and at women in general.”
Where to begin? One wants to be sympathetic to Mrs. Clinton at this point, if for no other reason than to show one’s range. But her last weeks have been, and her next weeks will likely be, one long exercise in summoning further denunciations. It is something new in politics, the How Else Can I Offend You Tour. And I suppose it is aimed not at voters—you don’t persuade anyone by complaining in this way, you only reinforce what your supporters already think—but at history, at the way history will tell the story of the reasons for her loss.
So, to address the charge that sexism did her in:
It is insulting, because it asserts that those who supported someone else this year were driven by low prejudice and mindless bias.
It is manipulative, because it asserts that if you want to be understood, both within the community and in the larger brotherhood of man, to be wholly without bias and prejudice, you must support Mrs. Clinton.
It is not true. Tough hill-country men voted for her, men so backward they’d give the lady a chair in the union hall. Tough Catholic men in the outer suburbs voted for her, men so backward they’d call a woman a lady. And all of them so naturally courteous that they’d realize, in offering the chair or addressing the lady, that they might have given offense, and awkwardly joke at themselves to take away the sting. These are great men. And Hillary got her share, more than her share, of their votes. She should be a guy and say thanks.
It is prissy. Mrs. Clinton’s supporters are now complaining about the Hillary nutcrackers sold at every airport shop. Boo hoo. If Golda Meir, a woman of not only proclaimed but actual toughness, heard about Golda nutcrackers, she would have bought them by the case and given them away as party favors.
It is sissy. It is blame-gaming, whining, a way of not taking responsibility, of not seeing your flaws and addressing them. You want to say “Girl, butch up, you are playing in the leagues, they get bruised in the leagues, they break each other’s bones, they like to hit you low and hear the crack, it’s like that for the boys and for the girls.”
And because the charge of sexism is all of the above, it is, ultimately, undermining of the position of women. Or rather it would be if its source were not someone broadly understood by friend and foe alike to be willing to say anything to gain advantage.
* * *
It is probably truer that being a woman helped Mrs. Clinton. She was the front-runner anyway and had all the money, power, Beltway backers. But the fact that she was a woman helped give her supporters the special oomph to be gotten from making history. They were by definition involved in something historic. And they were on the right side, connected to the one making the breakthrough, shattering the glass. They were going to be part of breaking it into a million little pieces that could rain down softly during the balloon drop at the historic convention, each of them catching the glow of the lights. Some network reporter was going to say, “They look like pieces of the glass ceiling that has finally been shattered.”
I know: Barf. But also: Fine. Politics should be fun.
Meir and Gandhi and Mrs. Thatcher suffered through the political downside of their sex and made the most of the upside. Fair enough. As for this week’s Clinton complaints, I imagine Mrs. Thatcher would bop her on the head with her purse. Mrs. Gandhi would say “That is no way to play it.” Mrs. Meir? “They said I was the only woman in the cabinet and the only one with—well, you know. I loved it.”