Tiffany Jenkins: Focus on politics, not gender

Former first lady, senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton is a political heavyweight. Picture: AP
Former first lady, senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton is a political heavyweight. Picture: AP
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THE fact Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the US presidency ignores her experience to focus on the fact she is a woman insults us all, writes Tiffany Jenkins

It’s been a good week for women, apparently. That’s how one commentator summed it up, responding to both the official launch of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, in the 2016 race for the White House, and the selection of actress Angela Lansbury for the prestigious Olivier theatre award.

It might seem like these two women don’t have all that much in common – given one is a politician set on becoming leader of the free world and the other is an actress known for playing Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote – but both achieved something remarkable so that must be good for women, or so the reasoning goes.

The trouble with this line of argument is that it does a disservice to both Hillary Clinton and Angela Lansbury. To judge them and their achievements on the basis of their gender is, despite the clear intention of being respectful, disrespectful. It’s patronising. But it happens all too often. And there is something about it that is a little bit, worryingly, new.

I am thinking in particular of Hilary Clinton. Her announcement that she is running for president says a lot about politics today. “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion,” she said.

It takes some chutzpah to present yourself as the outsider, the person who will stand up for the everyday man, when you are practically political royalty, when you are incredibly wealthy, when you have been close to the seat of power of what remains the most important country in the world, for decades (“I have 35 years’ experience making change,” she once boasted in a TV advert in December 2007).

Although she was being generous in how she defined “making change”, she wasn’t far off – but that’s the line she is going with. As, indeed, do most politicians.

It could be laudable that the political class aim to help out the ordinary Joe, but it cannot be welcomed, because, despite what is promised, they don’t do so; they don’t follow through, and there is a tremendous gulf between them and us no matter what politics you subscribe to. You can be well off and fight for the interests of the worst off, but the folksy ‘I understand your pain’, from all who want to be elected, is disingenuous, and treats us if we are all a little pathetic. We need a little more than pity. We should be taken seriously. So please, spare us the videos of political leaders playing at interacting with ordinary people.

But that is what we got. Hillary Clinton’s campaign video begins with a woman (a mother, obviously) talking about potatoes, because that’s what normal people do. Then, there is a pregnant woman and her husband, followed by a female college student getting ready for the “real world”. There are of course black and gay people and children. It’s practically a United Colours of Benetton ad. Then there is an old woman, a dog, a cat (how amusing) and, even, a white working-class man. “It’s your time”, Hillary pops up to say, meaning your time to vote, presumably.

The thing is, it is all about who you are – a woman, a man, a mother, a student – your colour, gender and sexual preference. But not political preferences. Not what you think. Hillary Clinton mentions “everyday Americans”, the importance of “strong families” and “tough economic times” – because, you are meant to see, she gets the difficult problems people face – but that is all you get. No agenda. No programme. No discussion about how to tackle the difficult times, how to change things. And given that she was the secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, you might think she would mention her experience, her record, even the big wide world beyond the US. But no. There is no mention of foreign affairs, of any place not called America

Most grating and unnerving about Hilary Clinton’s campaign launch, is the elevation of her gender. When she said last month, “Don’t you someday want to see a woman president?” we should have known what was coming. But I was unprepared for how entirely focused on the fact that she is female her campaign would be. Because she used to deliberately avoid that kind of message. The campaign material doesn’t just mention the fact that Hilary Clinton is female, in case that wasn’t obvious, her gender and identity dominate. Clinton will put women and children first, and smash the glass ceiling, it is said.

The campaign website is full of biographical material but includes no policy statements. It’s as if she has just been washing dishes, mending clothes and getting the kids to school on time for the past few years, when she has, in fact, also been central to how America does politics for years.

And that’s different. In 2008 she did her best to make gender a non-issue; this time it’s the opposite. Excruciatingly, on Twitter, she is using the hashtag #GrandmothersKnowBest.

It is great that a woman who is a grandmother could be elected as a leader, but let president Barack Obama serve as a cautionary tale. Obama was lauded, in part, for being black, and too few engaged with his political programme. It made him less accountable. So be careful what you wish for.

What was wrong with Sarah Palin was not her gender but her ideas. The same goes for Condoleezza Rice, the American political scientist and diplomat, who is a woman, is black, and also served in the administration of president George W Bush. And let’s not forget Margaret Thatcher.

In an interview with Elle magazine, Hillary’s daughter Chelsea Clinton, said the election of a woman – her mother – as president is important for “symbolic reasons”. But this is to avoid talking about Hillary’s politics and experience, which insults everyone. We all have more to offer than our biology.


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