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What Women Want

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Oh, Hillary. You were wrong when you said being the U.S. president was the hardest job in the world. Being the first woman to almost-be the U.S. president is the hardest job in the world. What a drag to act as the living symbol of feminism, to tutor the press in how to cover a female candidate, to ease the public into the idea of a woman on top, to serve first as proof that girls can grow up to be anything they want to be and now as evidence that they can't--when all you were trying to do was run for office.

"A lot of people are asking, what does Hillary want?" Hillary said in Tuesday's speech, and I thought I detected a twinkle in her eye. It's the question demanded of Hillary, but it's also the question Freud demanded of all her sisters: "What do women want?"

Freud's answer, lamely, is that women want to be men. Clinton's was that she wanted to end the war in Iraq, turn the economy around, and provide health care for every American. It was a neat rhetorical trick. Freud's question suggests that women are a deep, unfathomable mystery, perhaps even to themselves, and what they want is unique to their gender. Clinton's response indicated that she wanted something perfectly ordinary and obvious for anyone running for president: policies to improve the lives of her constituents.

Clinton's answer approaches something like Gloria Steinem's definition of feminism--the radical notion that women are people. But the question gets at something that has been important in this race, and remains a factor women struggle with in their jobs, public identities, and life choices: ambition. (See the Brookings Institute study on the ambition gap between women and men, and Gina Kolata's article on female athletes and setting goals.)

"What do women want?" presumes women want something, which is a good place to start. Wanting propels a person forward. It's an essential ingredient in the plot of a story, and often a novel unfolds as a pattern of quests and thwarted desires. To read Clinton's life as literature, we have a character who has wanted from a young age to change the world and along the way has sought the platforms that will allow her to do that: a law degree, a political husband, an office in the West Wing, a senate seat, a book deal, money. Any of those platforms would be a significant enough desire to propel a novel, but together they create a kind of epic of ambition--culminating in the quest for the presidency--that we have rarely seen, with the possible of exception of the life of Bill Clinton.

Other ambitious characters, such as the Kennedys or the Bushes, do not seem quite so calculated in their paths, although that may be more perception than reality. Clinton is fairly straightforward about her ambition, and I suspect if we were more used to seeing it so blatantly embraced by a politician we would praise her for her strategic thinking and her discipline. Isn't this one of businesses' catch phrases for success? Plan your work and work your plan. Instead, Clinton's ambition sits awkwardly, especially on a woman.

Back to Freud, and the suggestion inherent in his question that there is something strange about a woman's desire. What are we reacting to when we say that Hillary Clinton is just too ambitious (a charge I suspect most readers have heard many times, too)? Is it that, deep down, we don't believe a woman should want anything more than a husband and children? Is it about good manners, like not announcing one is hungry or has to pee, and our expectation that women be civilized? Is it about sex--that a woman's desire interferes with a man's pleasure in the chase, or some Victorian notion that a lady shouldn't want anything too badly?

Sadly, I believe all these attitudes still lurk beneath our public discourse, like icy currents pulling up mud. They may be part of the reasons for women's hesitation at defining an ambition and pursuing it headlong: it's unfeminine, it's unbecoming, it's unattractive, it's not sexy. The slurs about Clinton's appearance and the ease with which the words "bitch" and "cunt" were thrown around in this race may have unfortunately only confirmed some of these fears.

Ambition also requires one to communicate that she thinks she is better--or at least better-qualified--than someone else, a claim that contradicts a traditional feminine value of placing others' needs before one's own. Clinton has been criticized for her me-first attitude, but a certain amount of self-prioritizing is necessary to achieve a goal. Over time, Clinton's tenacity and willingness to be an intelligent women speaking intelligently in public has turned Clinton's scarlet A for Ambition into a badge of honor, and it is more meaningful than I can say that many voters and pundits speak of her abilities with respect.

Yet... there remains the element of ambition that seems particularly troubling and particularly Clinton's: at what cost ambition is achieved. This, I believe, extends beyond feminism or sexism or any other condition of which Clinton is a symbol. Instead, it is a fundamental human calculus that everyone must figure out--how much is the goal worth? The Clintons have been well excoriated on these pages and others for interjecting race into the debate, for demanding the Florida and Michigan delegates be seated even though the states violated the rules, for turning the tone of the contest ugly and mean. When I ask voters who might otherwise be inclined to support Clinton why they have gone for Obama, the response I hear most often is, "I don't like the way she's run her campaign."

Literature teaches us that a character's strength is often her downfall. Although it may have cost her the race, Clinton's ambition is the reason she came as far as she did, and that should be celebrated. My favorite part of Clinton's candidacy has been the spectacle of women wanting--sans sex, sans neediness, sans shopping and Cosmos and Manolo Blahniks, but full of determination for social justice, a seat in government, peace, prosperity, and public happiness.

For this, I am grateful to Hillary Clinton. And I am grateful, too, in a weary kind of way, that she has again offered herself more as an example than a success story for how hard breaking new ground can be. Although she didn't win, because of Clinton it will be easier to be an ambitious, capable woman in public, and for that reason she has opened doors far beyond those of the White House.

Goodbye, Hillary. We hardly knew you.