02/18/2008 04:40 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Must Hillary Be Perfect?

How perfect will the first woman president have to be?

Too perfect to be human, I suspect. And in Hillary Clinton's case, the demand often comes from women.

Take Maureen Dowd's recent New York Times column that summed up many women's grievances about Hillary.

"As a possible first Madame President, Hillary is a flawed science experiment because you can't take Bill out of the equation. Her story is wrapped up in her marriage, and her marriage is wrapped up in a series of unappetizing compromises, arrangements and dependencies."

That's the nub of the problem many of my friends have with Hillary. She didn't do it on her own. She's attached at the hip to Bill, and riding his coattails in her quest for the presidency.

These women, and thousands more like them, became lawyers, doctors, journalists, and managers mainly on grit, guts and ability in a very tough world. They didn't have mentors. They didn't have the older guy-rabbis like many of their male contemporaries Many of them knew they wouldn't have an easy ride and learned early on that they'd have to use their talent like a battering ram to smash through doors that were closed to them.

I am woman, hear me roar was the anthem of the feminist movement, and when many of us roared, we figured we'd do it with little male help. We disdained the women who climbed the ladder by sleeping their way up, or who attached themselves to powerful men who could advance their career. Sure, maybe in her day Clare Booth Luce had to marry Henry to get her dazzling career, we figured, but not us. We'd do it the hard way, on our own. And often, we did.

Which makes Hillary a conundrum. She's not the independent pioneer who did it all her way.

On the other hand, she's hardly an appendage to Bill. She has a list of accomplishments in her own right, from Yale law to Watergate staffer to legal eagle, to new-style First Lady who really was a policy advisor to her husband. She ran a Senate campaign that was not, as Chris Matthews suggested, built on sympathy for a wronged wife. It was an energetic campaign in which she convinced even crusty upstate New York voters that she'd be an effective senator. Which she has been.

Of course Bill Clinton has been an important part of her story. And yes, there's been what Dowd calls the "ick" factor of the drama of their marriage. But there does seem to be a double standard for women -- and especially this woman -- as far as family help is concerned.

Let's look at some of the men who ran for president. Without George H. W. Bush, does anyone think that George W. Bush would be anything more than a mid-level executive someplace? The whole story of W. is that of a man buoyed by his family.

As Robert Trigaux wrote in the St. Petersburg Times,

"Once upon a time, a rich and powerful father gathered his four young sons and urged them to become rich and powerful, too. Take risks. Push yourselves. Influence others, he ordered in a bold voice.

"Then he whispered, 'And if you muck things up, a fairy godfather will always appear to make things better.'

"Those may not have been the precise words spoken, but this is no tall tale. It's the business model adopted long ago by George and Barbara Bush to propel sons George W., Jeb, Marvin and Neil into the high ranks of industry and, at least for two boys, politics."

The formula, Trigaux noted, went like this:

"STEP 1: Leverage the Bush family name and a small personal investment into really big money, always provided by others.

"STEP 2: If any deal goes sour, exit early with personal fortune intact. Or rely on a bailout from one of Dad's fairy godfathers: some of the thousands of wealthy Republican fundraisers and longtime supporters of former President Bush.

"Of course, playing off the privileged and famous Bush name is inevitable. To a point. But to the Bush boys, dubbed the "Shrubs" by detractors, it's become a chronic dependency. A habit of striking consistency."

W.'s whole career followed that pattern. Old Yale pals of his dad helped finance his venture with the Texas Rangers, and when W. sold his share of the team, he came out a rich man, with $15 million to finance his political career.

Then there's Jack Kennedy, whose multi-millionaire father once said "We're going to sell Jack like soap flakes," and old Joe called in plenty of political chits and spent hundred's of thousands of dollars in his son's campaign. At a Gridiron dinner, Jack Kennedy held up what was supposed to be a telegram from his dad and joked that it said, "Jack, don't spend one dime more than is necessary. I'll be damned if I am going to pay for a landslide."

When Ted Kennedy first ran for the senate, his credentials were so thin that his opponent, Edward McCormack, nephew of house speaker John McCormack, said, "If your name was simply Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy, your candidacy would be a joke."

Coattails and family dynasties are as American as apple pie. There were two Adamses as president (John and John Quincy) and two Roosevelts (Teddy and FDR). President William Howard Taft begat presidential contender senator Robert Taft; the president's grandson, another Robert Taft, served in the senate in the 70s and his great-grandson, Bob Taft, served as governor of Ohio. There's the Rockefellers (New York governor and presidential candidate Nelson and West Virginia Senator Jay) and the Gores, senators Albert and son Al, the Nobel Prize winner. Add the Romney's, Mitt and dad George, who was Michigan governor and a presidential candidate in his own time, the father-and-son senator Dodds of Connecticut, Pat and Jerry Brown, governors of California, the Bayhs of Indiana (dad senator, Birch, and son senator and governor Evan, and so on.

Male presidential candidates (from the Admass on down) have long had famous families, or very rich friends and benefactors to help them along the way. The only difference with Hillary is that she's a woman and that her famous family member was a husband, not a parent or grandparent.

If we apply the standard of perfection that we seem to apply to Hillary to all female candidates, will we ever have a woman president? How about Nancy Pelosi? Did she do it all on her own? Well, she comes a very old and well-connected Democratic family, the D'Alesandros. Both her father and brother were mayors of Baltimore. She didn't exactly come from nowhere to be speaker of the house.

All women who aspire to national leadership run into damaging stereotypes. A recent study by the business think tank Catalyst titled "Damned If You Do, Doomed If You Don't" found that when women use assertive leadership styles, they are seen as competent but not likable; if they use more stereotypically feminine styles, they are seen as likable but weak.

Add to these stereotypes the once-again-popular ideas that women's brains and hormones suit them more to domesticity and relationships than to leadership, and you really put a ball-and-chain on women candidates.

With all that baggage, it could be many generations before any woman gets elected to the presidency, especially if we insist she has to be some kind of feminine equivalent of the Lone Ranger. That's not to say that all women must vote in lockstep for Hillary in some kind of feminist solidarity, but give her a break.

Coattails are standard issue for presidents. Live with it.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News media Scare Women."