THE BLOG

You Looking at Me?

12/20/2007 03:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You know Hillary is no longer seen as the inevitable front runner in Iowa when Maureen Dowd (almost, at least till she gets to her punch line) writes something positive about her.

In response to the latest Drudge-Limbaugh-sexist bloggers' echo chamber campaign to denigrate Hillary for -- gasp! -- looking like a 60-year-old woman, when men of that certain age or even -- gasp again! -- older are seen as distinguished and wise, Dowd observed: "Women are still scrutinized more critically on their looks, which seem to fluctuate more on camera, depending on lighting, bloating and wardrobe."

It takes a sharp sense of humor as well as a tough hide to get beyond the frivolously discriminatory lens with women are judged. Chile's president, Michele Bachelet, who ranks # 17 on Forbes' list of "World's Most Influential Women to Hillary's #18, told a CNN reporter that when a male journalist asked her how she would wear the pants of the presidency she replied tartly, "or the skirt of the presidency."

Yet for women seeking leadership roles, the appearance issue is just one layer of the perceptual onion; each layer will have to be -- and will be -- peeled back over time to fully understand what the core resistance is about. By then, of course, it won't matter because there will be enough women in leadership positions that seeing them in those roles feels normal.

When the luxuriantly pregnant Campbell Brown asked Clinton the first question at the Las Vegas Democratic presidential debate, it was clear that several layers have already disappeared.

To begin with, in Hillary's elementary school days, a visibly pregnant woman wasn't allowed to teach school, let alone imagine she could be a network television anchor, and an anchor interviewing a woman leading the presidential pack at that.

Second, this adorable exchange between Brown and Clinton highlighted a generational difference that need not be a divide, but is surely an onion layer to be acknowledged as we bid farewell to it along with Hillary's knowing wink:

BROWN: But, Senator, if I can just ask you, what did you mean at Wellesley when you referred to the "boy's club"?

CLINTON: Campbell...

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Just curious.

CLINTON: Well, it is clear, I think, from women's experiences that from time to time, there may be some impediments.

(LAUGHTER)

And it has been my goal over the course of my lifetime to be part of this great movement of progress that includes all of us, but has particularly been significant to me as a woman.

And to be able to aim toward the highest, hardest glass ceiling is history-making.

Now, I'm not running because I'm a woman. I'm running because I think I'm the best qualified and experienced person to hit the ground running, but it's humbling...

(APPLAUSE)

By that debate, Hillary had taken her attire down a notch since John Edwards disparaged her pink jacket. She stood, earrings glistening, in a crisp but subdued salt-and-pepper tweed jacket with her black pants -- a suit she laughingly described as "asbestos" in preparation for the scorching attacks she expected from her competitors.

(Oops, there's that cackle again -- but wait, she needs the humor here -- now do we understand why Hillary sometimes seems to be walking a tightrope in her comments? She lives on the tightrope of transition, smack in the middle of profound social change that she is both the product of and the woman leading others to the next level.)

"Hillary doesn't have to worry about her face. She has to worry about her mask," concluded the ever-clever Dowd. But when I interviewed Hillary a few years ago for my book, The War on Choice, she summed up the real challenge better herself:

It's human nature that when the established order has been changed, there will be a reaction, and the magnitude of the reaction shouldn't surprise us. The advancement of women in the last 50 years has been breathtaking...There are victories along the way, but none of these victories is secure because of the pressures that undermine women's rights and advancement...So now women who value their autonomy have to step up and take action.

Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz finally got some key journalists to acknowledge the obvious, that Hillary is treated differently, judged more harshly by the media across the board.

"She's just held to a different standard in every respect," says Mark Halperin, Time's editor at large. "The press rooted for Obama to go negative, and when he did he was applauded. When she does it, it's treated as this huge violation of propriety." While Clinton's mistakes deserve full coverage, Halperin says, "the press's flaws -- wild swings, accentuating the negative -- are magnified 50 times when it comes to her. It's not a level playing field."

Attacks on Hillary's gendered physical attributes, as even the Hillary-bashing Dowd has to agree, are often a convenient mask to obscure those odiferous layers of misogyny that still exist and spill over where they shouldn't be in determining the outcome of the Presidential race.