Some years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to Midge Wilson, a professor at DePaul University and co-author of “Divided Sisters.”
Wilson was of the opinion that women would be natural allies in making our world a better place, but as she conducted interviews for her book, her optimism vanished.
We were not natural allies, she said, “because if given a choice between aligning themselves with the power and privilege of white men, white women will almost always choose white men, even if it means hurting the cause of women collectively.”
Memory of our conversation came roaring back recently as I read – to my dismay – the visceral reaction to a column I wrote last month celebrating Hillary Clinton winning the Democratic nomination for president.
I was simply proud.
We’re used to men winning. Women not so much, so I always feel like dancing when women come out on top.
I agreed with first lady Michelle Obama who said that because of Clinton's win, our daughters could now take for granted that a woman could be president of the United States.
It’s important to say here that the majority of women, polls show, intend to vote for Clinton.
But I was taken aback by the reaction from readers, nearly 300 of you and almost entirely female. You would’ve thought I’d committed blasphemy.
“And this is the best we ladies could do,” one woman wrote. “Disgraceful.”
Said another: ”A woman who for years has covered up her husband’s sexual abuse of other women is the furthest thing that I can think of as a win for those of us who share her gender.”
I wondered if we hold women in leaderships positions to a higher standard than we do men? Or was it just Hillary Clinton?
Debra Shushan, assistant professor of government at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., posits that women who dislike Hillary Clinton generally do so for at least one of three reasons.
One, disagreement over policy. Two, belief that Clinton has been involved in so many scandals that she must be untrustworthy and power hungry. And three, anger at her willingness to challenge and redefine societal notions about a “woman’s place.”
“Some do not think it’s a woman’s job to be president. Others are not willing to accept when a woman compromises herself and her principles in the ways that male politicians do — in the way that any politician must in order to have a shot at becoming president,” Shushan said. “Many women only want a female president if the woman in question fits their version of what a woman should be. Female identity is deeply contested in our culture, not least among women ourselves. This leads many of Hillary’s female detractors to adopt ‘not this woman’ as a rallying cry. And certainly not this woman first.”
Kristin Kanthak, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and Kris Macomber, visiting sociology professor at Meredith College, agree women may be uncomfortable seeing a woman in this role.
“Their defense that it isn’t all women, that it is just her, and if Elizabeth Warren or Nikki Haley ran, they wouldn’t have the same ‘likeability’ problem, doesn’t wash,” Kanthak said. “I’d argue that if either of them ran for president, they’d have the same problems, particularly if they were the first woman.”
I was struck by a detailed email from reader Judy Brown, a 63-year-old grandmother from Roswell, who eight years ago volunteered for the Clinton campaign in four states during the primary race and also expressed dismay with my column.
“Your column today saddens me in that it expects readers to exalt the accomplishment of a woman being the nominee of a major political party, in spite of the many clouds that cover this momentous occasion,” she wrote.
Those clouds included revelations by the FBI that Clinton was careless with classified emails and that she lied to the loved ones of the four Americans killed in our Embassy in Benghazi.
“I didn’t foresee our first woman nominee being a liar,” Brown wrote. “It’s disappointing.”
The family of at least one of those slain Americans has said they oppose the blame heaped on Clinton. And so I wondered if she and the other women were being unduly judgmental, if perhaps they were holding Secretary Clinton to a higher standard than they would, say, Donald Trump, the Republican standard bearer.
I emailed Brown and asked if she wouldn’t mind meeting me. Days later we met at a coffee shop near her home and talked for more than an hour, rambling like old friends, about Clinton, our children and growing up in Mississippi.
Early on, Brown admitted she might be guilty of being a little hard on Clinton.
But she said the standard was no different from what she’d had for herself and other women. Is that standard higher than what she would hold for men?
“I guess in all honesty I would have to say yes,” Brown said.
Regardless of gender, Brown, who for years made a living in the male dominated food service industry, sees Clinton through a decidedly personal lens.
Her 44-year-old son and only child served four years in the U.S. Navy.
“I thank God my son’s service in our Navy is behind us, but so many people who serve our country now can’t afford our leaders being careless with classified information,” she said
She also knew her 12-year-old granddaughter, who often campaigned for Clinton alongside her in 2008, was watching, and she had no intention of excusing Clinton’s or anyone else’s unethical behavior.
“I will never forget the day the reports came out that Hillary lied about the sniper fire in Bosnia,” Brown said. “My sweet granddaughter asked me if it was true that Hillary lied.”
That was Brown’s moment of truth.
“Adults make all sorts of mistakes that are excused and disregarded, heavens knows I have,” Brown said. “Every once in awhile we have an opportunity to shine, like the day I was honest with my granddaughter, even though I didn’t want to be”
If there’s one thing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign is showing us, Macomber said, it’s that no matter how far into the post-gender era we think we are, we just aren’t there yet.
“No matter how smart, effective and capable Clinton is, she is still going to endure intense scrutiny because she doesn’t embody the image of power and leadership that we are historically accustomed to,” she said. “Even in 2016, after decades of social, economic and political gains for women, we are still unable to see Clinton as just a politician. Instead we still see her as a woman politician.
“At the heart of the matter is this: While we take for granted that men are ‘natural leaders,’ women still have to work really hard to convince the public that they are fit to lead.”
Brown told me that one of the reasons she supported Hillary in 2008 was because she was a woman.
“I just want out first female president to be at the top of the heap when it comes to honesty, and I just don’t feel like Hillary passes the bar on that for me,” she said. ”I don’t want her to be like the guys. I do want her to be beyond reproach.”