Hillary: A Hammer In Pastels

05/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hillary Clinton's best line at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner last night in Raleigh, North Carolina, was about the long line of female fighters in America. Women protested against taxation without representation, she reminded us. Women overturned tea into the Boston Harbor.

The phrases, recent additions to the stump speech, stopped me short. The only other time a Clinton speech has choked me up was in Iowa, when a female state representative introduced Chelsea, who introduced her mother, and the three of them stood in front of an American flag, gripping hands and grinning at the audience, the familiar tableau of politicians on the stump suddenly shocking because I'd never seen it inhabited by women before.

Simply by being prominent, Clinton's campaign is teaching me how invisible women remain in public life. It's the real-life version of the graphic novel Y: The Last Man, in which all creatures with a Y chromosome (save a young man and his monkey) are inexplicably wiped out. Planes fall out of the sky because the vast majority of commercial airline pilots are men. Fans gather at the Washington Monument to mourn the loss of famous musicians: The Stones, The Beatles, Dylan. Yes, the women rock stars have been spared, but they are few; it's men who dominate our cultural landscape. In the graphic novel, the Secretary of Agriculture assumes the presidency because every higher office is occupied by a man. In the real present-day U.S., it's a little better: minus W. and Cheney, Nancy Pelosi would take office, and Condoleezza Rice is fourth in line. After that, though, whom do we have? Only two Secretaries and sixteen of our hundred senators are women.

The sense of punching through a void may help explain some of Clinton's pugnacious rhetoric. Her "fighter" motif has been running for several months now (did you catch the supporters wearing boxing gloves at her victory speech in Pennsylvania?), and it was front and center at the Dorton Arena in Raleigh.

Democrats, she said to the not-quite-full stands, want "a president on your side and in your corner."

"I want to be your voice," she said later. "I want to be your fighter."

And later again: "China should be our trade partner, not our trade master." One can almost picture her standing triumphantly over a tamed Hu Jintao, a Ferragamo slipper pressing into his neck. Over and over, Clinton characterizes herself as tough, scrappy, and ready to rumble.

Clinton may very well be all these things--she may also be taking care to make sure the audience is taking her seriously. To move briefly from politics to another male-dominated field, banking, New York magazine this week reports on Morgan Stanley's firing of Zoe Cruz, just when she was poised to become CEO. "Most critically, she was not taken at all seriously by a number of her male colleagues," author Joe Hagan writes. "'She'd give these speeches, and the eyes would roll.'"

Obviously, not being taken seriously is insulting, especially when one's past performance would seem to merit respect--which may be one reason why Clinton insists on the criteria of "hard work" and "qualifications." She may wish to remind the audience she has earned her authority.

Not being taken seriously can also undermine a mission. One banker said, "When [Goldman Sachs] say[s] get out, they get out. At Morgan Stanley, when Zoe says get out, people start negotiating."

Can you imagine negotiating with the commander-in-chief? Lest anyone have such an impulse, Clinton seems to be establishing early on that she is totally, absolutely, completely in charge. A second chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff just endorsed her, Clinton told the audience. "He trusted me to be the commander-in-chief and end the war in Iraq with honor." How she would "end the war in Iraq with honor" remains vague; that Clinton is a bona fide warrior comes through loud and clear.

Despite whether I think she would be the best president, I have always been grateful to Hillary Clinton for living for all to see many of the frustrating, impossible situations of contemporary womanhood. The latest may be that she must find a way to simultaneously serve as the symbol for feminism's triumph while eliminating nearly every trace of softness or warmth from her campaign. Gas prices, illness, job loss, taxes, terrorism, even mildew in soldiers' living quarters: the Clinton stump speech is a litany of worries, woes, and threats. As she spoke, I found myself sitting lower and lower in my seat, as if I were a nail and her words were a hammer. Instead of beguiling the audience, Clinton seemed to want to demolish us.

At the end, Clinton offered a few uplifting lines, "together we will," although there had been no evidence of typically female collaboration in the rest of her speech. Then she shot her arm in the air and descended the stage to shake hands with some North Carolina pols. An hour or so later, Barack Obama took her place. The arena thundered with applause, and nearly the entire audience was on its feet. For her sake, I hoped Hillary Clinton had already left the building. As it has been at every campaign event I have attended, Obama's reception was at least twice as enthusiastic as hers, and the audience remained captivated by his speech. Once again, Clinton's most salient quality may only be that she exemplifies the current state of affairs in gender politics: a prince may be loved, but a would-be queen may only be feared.