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Dowd, Hillary and the Feminist Champion

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By now, most have been introduced to the GOP's new 2012 strategy of playing racquetball with women's rights. First, various states, including not-so-lunar Virginia, passed paleolithic legislation curbing abortion access. Then Rick Santorum squandered a golden opportunity in Michigan by trashing contraception (Rick can really pick a target. After taking on sex, he decided to attack JFK, saying the most popular American leader of the last half-century made him "throw up"; maybe next week, Santorum will challenge ice cream to a duel). Next, Rush Limbaugh actually did make people throw up -- well, more than the usual hundred million -- when he spewed bile at Sandra Fluke. And, finally, only a few days ago, Mitt Romney declared that he'd get rid of Planned Parenthood.

It's cool, though, because women make up a negligible percentage of the electorate. Whoops -- I'm thinking of Lord Voldemort's approval rating; it turns out women actually make up a majority of American voters. With unemployment still at 8% and gas prices rising, perhaps the right's "get tough on the ladies" gambit was a bit imprudent.

It was in this surreal context that Maureen Dowd took to her column yesterday to celebrate Hillary Clinton's speech at the Women in the World Summit -- in which the Secretary of State took a rare swipe at domestic politics, lambasting "extremists" in our own country who seek to marginalize women. Dowd ended the piece advocating a Hillary 2016 "glide path" to the presidency: "Women who assumed that electing Obama would lift all minority boats are beginning to think: Maybe he's not enough. If women are so vulnerable, they may need one of their own."

The thermostat is dropping precipitously in hell. I nearly fell out of my chair. It wasn't the notion of a Clinton succession that gave me vertigo, of course, but the specter of Dowd championing such a crusade. This is a columnist who has built her career on attacking Hillary and mocking her legitimacy as a symbol of feminism -- in particular, winning a Pulitzer for her psychoanalysis during the Lewinsky scandal.

During the 2008 campaign, Dowd's commentary became obsessively catty and sexist -- 28 of her 44 columns during the primary process attacked Clinton with gender-laden language. She wrote that there was "an ick factor" in voting for Clinton; that her candidacy could never test the bounds of gender because she was "wrapped in a series of unappetizing compromises, arrangements, and dependencies." Allegations of sexist treatment in press coverage were "poppycock," Dowd said on Meet the Press.

The increasingly creepy personal attacks didn't even stop once Clinton had exited the race. The Denver Convention, Dowd wrote, was poised to be drowned in Hillary's "primal screams" and "barely disguised desire to see [Obama] fail." She was going to guilt-trip the Democratic electorate with gender-victimhood, and was "orchestrating a play within a play," like Hamlet showing the murder of his father. (Not only did nothing of the preposterous sort occur, but Clinton's speech supporting Obama was widely regarded as the most effective of the Convention.)

Dowd's most outrageously offensive writing may well have come post-inauguration, once Clinton had assumed control of Foggy Bottom. The Times scribe observed that the new Secretary was enjoying her post (which Dowd called the first Clinton had earned on her own): "Certainly, she doesn't have to worry that this president's gaze is going to drift over her shoulder to some pretty thing behind her. In this White House, Barack Obama is the pretty thing who is taken with Hillary's serious, smartest-girl-at-Wellesley aura. In a funny way, he's the man of her dreams."

Classy. Not ignoring the fact that Dowd went after Howard Dean's wife, John Kerry's wife and, a few years later, most Republican women in power, whom she labeled " Teenage Mean Girls," we can safely say that the Hillary fixation had become uniquely peculiar. No need to take my word on it, though. The New York Times' own Public Editor was eventually driven to writing a column, entitled "Pantsuits and the Presidency," basically apologizing for Dowd's bizarre behavior and saying her sexist language belonged in 2008's "Hall of Shame."

And now, with women on the defensive, Dowd thinks the time has come for women to unite behind Clinton as their Joan of Arc? I'm confused. I thought Clinton's unprecedented candidacy for President of the United States would, in Dowd's words, "dampen the dreams of our daughters."

My point is not to start a witch-hunt or nitpick Maureen Dowd's apparent change of heart. She is a talented, clever writer who occasionally focuses on substantive issues. Nor would I presume to speak on behalf of women, or mean to sound patronizing. But the rollback of women's health services and interests is real, and those that would rally on their behalf in times of need might remember that it's equally important not to dismiss feminist icons for a cheap turn-of-phrase when circumstances are less dire. Nobody should question Hillary's feminist mettle. Some should question Maureen Dowd's.