07/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better

video provided by the Obama for President campaign

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appeared together at a campaign rally in Unity, New Hampshire, last week.

If you thought Hillary Clinton's exit from the presidential race would signal the end of the campaign's Rorschach test on gender, you'd be wrong. For even as H. Clinton attempted to put the power she enjoyed as a Democratic presidential contender behind the campaign of the man who bested her, he unwittingly (one hopes) issued a back-handed compliment, ending with: "I don't know how she does it in heels."

I've been an Obama supporter since March, making the case that at this time of gloom and peril, the inspiration that Obama offers a frightened nation is what the times demand, offering women the best chance to improve our lot for those who come after us. Still, Obama's remark, despite his mention of his two young daughters, felt patronizing to me.

Here's how the Boston Globe summed up the moment, in Unity, New Hampshire, just prior to the "I don't know..." quote:

Obama directly addressed the raw feelings among many of Clinton's supporters about sexist attacks, praising her for setting a historic example for his daughters and daughters everywhere: "They can take for granted that they can do anything the boys can do. And do it better. And do it in heels."

Well, sure. Not to mention underwires.

In the grace category -- the category Obama is nearly always credited with winning against Clinton -- she clearly held the higher ground on Friday, in the mountains of New England.

Obama's shoe remark is likely a botched reference to the famous take on Ginger Rogers: that she did the same thing that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. But botched, I fear, is the operative word.

Perhaps Obama would find my umbrage surprising; maybe I'm just a humorless feminist. But that kind of surprise, in my book, is not unlike the sort of surprise white people often feel when we invoke the ire of African-Americans by conferring the sort of condescending compliment that always seems specific to blacks -- as in "articulate" (My, aren't we surprised that the African-American can speak proper English?). What a surprise that women can do things better than men -- and do it better in those frivolous shoes they wear to increase their diminutive stature!

Taking a page from the Hillary book

Yet, looking at what his own wife is in for, Obama would be wise to study the 1992 Clinton campaign, and the demonization of Hillary by the religious right. When you look at where the right is going in its narrative of Michelle Obama, it's headed down the same path, only with the added poison of racism thrown in. (This is why feminism must continue to be a civil rights movement, not just a women's rights movement.) The narrative, as so pointedly defined on this site by Christine Wicker, is that of the "uppity woman," an idea that conveniently combines the horror of a woman who doesn't know her place with that of the "uppity Negro."

To complicate things, as Michelle Obama endures the ire of the right in such moments as the famous Fox News ID of her as "Obama's baby-mama," feminists have come under fire for ostensibly not crying out loudly enough when this sort of garbage is lobbed at the prospective first lady, as in this piece by Mary C. Curtis on the Washington Post's Saturday op-ed page. (The Post seems to specialize this days in running opinion pieces by women who take aim at feminists, but rarely runs pieces by feminists that take on topics that don't involve sniping at other women.)

Carol Jenkins, president of the Women's Media Center (and one of the first African-American women to anchor a major-market newscast), begs to differ with Curtis, stating her organization's efforts to keep a spotlight turned on how media treat Michelle Obama.

Obama beware

I've always believed that the thing about Bill Clinton that most set the teeth of right-wing activists on edge -- more than draft-dodging or not inhaling or fornicating or adulterating -- was the fact that he married that Rodham woman, and was so totally okay with her having her own career and speaking out on the issues of the day. By her very person, she posed an insurmountable challenge to the power structure on which the whole of right-wing ideology hangs. If that's the case, than Michelle Obama poses a double threat: She's not just another career woman and smarter than most guys; she black and smarter than most white guys. And did I mention she's six feet tall? And attractive?

Put on your raincoats, mes amis; they're filling the slop buckets now.