Ignoble Hillary

05/14/2008 09:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Does anyone wonder why women who support Hillary Clinton for president get (excuse the vernacular) PO'd at some of our fellow Democrats?

It's because very time we turn around, someone is dissing our candidate in ways that infuriate us. He (or she) is using sexist, insulting language about the first woman to mount a viable run for the presidency, in ways that, to say the least, we do not appreciate.

While many of us see Barack Obama as an exciting, able and worthy candidate, and will gladly vote for him if he is the nominee, we do not see the same respect given to Hillary Clinton.

Take Ted Kennedy's remark that Hillary should not be on the ticket with Obama if he is the nominee. Instead, Kennedy wants someone who "is in tune with the nobler aspirations of the American people."

So what is ignoble about Hillary Clinton? Her health care policy, which is more inclusive than Obama's? Her work in 1972 with Marian Wright Edelman on school desegregation in the South? Her work in Arkansas, in the White House, and in the senate on children's rights? Her proposal to fully fund services for children with autism? (I have two grandkids who are mildly autistic, so this proposal does not seem at all ignoble to me). Or maybe her support for the right to choose, or her sensible plan to withdraw from Iraq in a way that does not put US troops at great risk?

I'd argue that Hillary Clinton, by her deeds, has proved herself every bit as noble as Obama, who also supports good policies. But Clinton, if just by virtue of longevity, has in fact done more.

I'll admit that as much as I admire Obama's idea about bringing Democrats and Republicans together, my years of covering politics -- especially in recent years -- make me skeptical. As long as the GOP operates on the Rovian principal of winning by keeping the base in constant upheaval, always recycling wedge issues, true bi-partisanship is next to impossible.

We women who wanted to see a woman president in our lifetime have been appalled by the sexism of the campaign. I personally have wanted to throw a shoe at the TV screen (especially when MSNBC is on) when panel after panel seems to consist of male pundits giving advice to the young prince about how to defeat the wicked witch of the west.

When Boston university journalism student Melissa Nawrocki examined campaign coverage, she found that the media accused Clinton of being insane, murderous, witchlike, depressed, and egomaniacal:

• On a Dec. 20, 2007 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews said that Clinton's political goal was "to smother the young senator [Obama] in his crib," using the visual of a murderous Clinton killing an infant Obama. Matthews also has referred to Clinton as "witchy" and a "stripteaser."

• In a Feb. 27 New York Times column, Maureen Dowd wrote that Clinton "has turned into Sybil," referencing the book and movie about a women with multiple whiny personalities. Just one day prior, CNN's The Situation Room commentator Jack Cafferty said that Clinton "[resembled] someone with a multiple personality disorder." Two days earlier, Chicago Tribune reporter Jill Zuckman said on MSNBC's Hardball that Clinton's recent behavior "comes across a little schizophrenic."

Sexist language has been over the top. In the course of her public life, Hillary Clinton has been called, in print, Lady Macbeth, the Wicked Witch of the East, a harridan, a virago and The Yuppie Wife from Hell, to name just a few. She's been compared to Glen Close as the murderous career woman in "Fatal Attraction." During the campaign, her "cackle" became the subject of countless media reports, as if she were indeed stirring a pot and chanting, "Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and caldron bubble."

On the blog mediaCrit, Ashleigh Crowther noted the coverage of Hillary's laugh. Patrick Healy of the New York Times dubbed it the "Clinton Cackle," Frank Rich of the Times called it " calculating," and pundit Dick Morris called Clinton's laugh 'loud, inappropriate, and mirthless . . .. A scary sound that was somewhere between a cackle and a screech.'"

On the O'Reilly Factor, a "body language expert" called Clinton's laughter "evil." ABC's Good Morning America, CNN's Situation Room, Fox News' Hannity & Colmes and MSNBC's Hardball included stories about it.

Sexist language often gets a chuckle from male media commentators -- such as the video clips of the young men who held up a sign, "Hillary Clinton, stop running for president and make me a sandwich." Imagine the outrage if that sign had said, "Barack Obama, stop running for president and shine my shoes."

Hillary's physical attributes have also been fair game. Matt Taibbi, national political reporter for Rolling Stone, referred to Clinton's "flabby" arms in his Apr. 3 piece, "Hillary's Flimsy Case." Writers have sniggered at her pantsuits, her wrinkles, her hairdos, her makeup, etc. etc. The men running for president this year displayed an array of paunches, double chins, bald pates, and jowls, and yet rarely were those cause for comment.

This reflects what Susan Sontag called "The Double Standard of Aging." There is just one standard of beauty for women -- the nubile 20-year-old, while men like Sean Connery and Harrison Ford can be considered sex symbols in their sixties, grey hair or no hair.

The double standard serves to silence women, keeping them out of the public arena. Mockery of one's physical attributes is especially painful. Hillary Clinton, in fact, looks great for a woman of sixty, fit and attractive. But she's often covered as if she were some kind of crone. Rush Limbaugh -- no poster boy of pulchritude himself -- spoke with dread of watching Hillary Clinton age in office. He made no such comment about 70-plus John McCain.

Might a future female candidate who doesn't resemble a pubescent supermodel shy away of running for fear of a vicious assault on her every sign of age? Or will she simply shudder at the expectation that she will be called evil, nutty and murderous? All this will give the next woman who wants to run for president a reason to pause -- and push the day of the first woman chief executive far into the future.

Boston University Journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women."