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Morra Aarons-Mele Headshot

Sexism: the Retrospective

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The Hillary candidacy is safely presumed dead. Long live Hillary! And her eulogy? It's mostly about her gender. Media and speeches today read something like: "Ah, the women who almost did it! How brave! How pathbreaking! She worked so hard! Thanks to her, our daughters will have it different!" That thing we dared not mention pre-Iowa, her femaleness (which the candidate herself quickly learned to deny after her brief "piling on" mishap) is now the siren song of an historic candidate. Last night, Obama said, "No matter how this primary ends, Senator Clinton has shattered myths and broken barriers and changed the America in which my daughters and yours will come of age." But Senator, what kind of lesson is this for our daughters? That talking about gender challenges is only fit for the retrospective?

On these pages today, Arianna Huffington wrote "there is no question that she has forever altered the way women running for president will be viewed from here on out....She has also forever demolished the question mark hovering over the issue many (wrongly, in my opinion) have felt would be a woman candidate's biggest weakness: the ability to be seen as a plausible commander-in-chief."

Arianna, you write that your youngest daughter is perhaps the best allegory for the impact of Clinton's achievements:

She voted for the first time in this year's California primary, casting her ballot for Obama. Yet hardly a day passes without her speaking with admiration, almost awe, about Hillary Clinton -- how she manages to get up every morning, no matter how hard things get for her, and keep following her dream.

Yes, Hillary worked hard. Never took a day off. She proved the old adage that a woman has to work twice as hard as a man to be taken seriously. Yes, she fought. She fought and took the slings, sexist and unfair, and she didn't complain until now. And she still lost, many would say, because voters thought she wasn't genuine. What kind of lesson is that for your daughter?

My colleague Elisa Camahort writes "I hope Arianna is right. I fear she is wrong. I don't think I was honestly surprised that sexism runs as deep and as wide in this country as it does."

Sexism is wide and deep, but it's been also largely undiscussed in the main. This is not to say that there has not been brilliant commentary about sexism during campaign '08. But sexism, gender difference, was never treated as something to be respected or lauded until Hillary Clinton proved once and for all (according to the media, at least) that she could not win. Now that Hillary's candidacy is in the past, we praise her as a pathbreaker. Back when she was viable, only hardline feminists really wrote about her woman-ness. Hillary herself spent a lot of time trying to deflect it. And yet now, why do you think mainstream media is openly talking about gender and 2008 now that it's pretty much over for Hillary? Why is the candidate only now herself bringing up sexism and actually using the word? Why are we, today, hailing Hillary's femaleness with great acclaim? Is it safe because it's not threatening anymore? She was a pathbreaker, but at least in 2008, will be nothing more.

That's not a lesson for the next generation, or this one. Surely it's better to fight the fight while you're still in the game. Only, I understand that it seemed really difficult at the time to bring it up. Smarter strategists than me will have to figure out how to inject gender into a contest of power and not have it hobble the gendered. Maybe in 2012.