Validation Through Deprecation (or: A Tale of Two Hillaries)

April 13th, 2012

Inspired by Hilary Rosen’s comments, the attack on her, and the renewed attack on Hillary Clinton’s 1992 cookie-baking comment that the Rabid Right has dredged up to bolster its claim of an Obama-led War on Moms.

 

“I  suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” – Hillary Clinton in 1992

 

“His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing.” – Hilary Rosen Wednesday night on CNN discussing Ann Romney’s ability to “report to” her husband about what average women are going through

 

“What is it that women want?
How do they deal with the choices they confront?
Women want to be happy and healthy and economically secure,
And those things for themselves and their families ensure.
They want the same things as men, in many respects
(That is, if men weren’t constantly thinking about sex).” — Newsericks

 

We human beings are flawed creatures. We make choices, and we worry about whether they’re the right ones. Sometimes, we have choices we’d rather not make forced on us by circumstances.

Sometimes, we try to validate our choices and our circumstances by denigrating other people’s. A working mom denigrates the stay-at-home mom, or vice versa. A high-school drop out denigrates pointy-headed intellectuals. A gay activist denigrates heterosexual families as “breeders.”

This often happens most and most stridently at the beginning of periods of great social change, and/or in response to criticism that the person lashing out feels from society. Sometimes, it’s a response to criticism from others. Sometimes it’s an attempt to quell one’s own insecurities. Sometimes, it’s both.

It’s almost impossible for human beings to avoid saying things like Hillary Clinton said almost exactly 20 years ago. Why? Because we make tough choices, we work hard to convince ourselves that we made the right choice. So when Hillary compared what she had accomplished in her career to “baking cookies,” she wasn’t really talking to the stay-at-home moms who chose the latter: she was speaking to herself, and (I would venture) at least in part trying to justify her choices not to others, but to herself.

Remember, Hillary in 1992 was a young woman with both a successful career and a 12 year old daughter, confronted with the always-difficult situation of supporting a husband running for (and subsequently elected as) President. The personal attacks she was subjected to by the right-wing echo chamber make the minor dig Hilary Rosen made against Ann Romney pale in comparison. The criticism Hillary Clinton was subjected to both during the campaign and as First Lady included much criticism of her as a cold, anti-family careerist thanks to her “feminazi” views and choice to work outside the home, so if we’re surprised by anything, it should be that this mild “cookies” comment was the extent of Hillary’s lashing out. And remember that all this was happening at a much earlier stage in the history of working women inAmerica.

Hillary Clinton is a strong, confident person, but even strong confident people feel self-doubt sometimes, and she may have felt it too, back then. How could anyone not feel a hint of doubt, faced with the life decisions, public scrutiny, and momentous events that she lived through? Contrast that to Hillary Clinton today: Daughter Chelsea is all grown up, and has obviously turned into a fantastic person, so that’s one concern that Hillary and Bill may have had back then (as all parents do), but which is now no longer an issue (there’s no greater self-validation than success, and Chelsea clearly is both a parental and individual success). On the career side, Hillary must have agonized about the career sacrifices she was making to support Bill’s career, but that’s now worked out well too: Hillary has proven herself a thousand times over, and has done so with Bill’s strong support. (That, after all, is how a marriage is supposed to work: you support each other, and when you can’t have it all all the time, you take turns.) And career-wise, if you’re the most admired woman in the world, you must be doing something right.

There are few decisions that are more fraught with emotion and the potential for self-recrimination than a mother’s decision to work out of the home or stay home with children, or to pursue a career instead of having children. There are few choices that are harder, because the stakes are so high, and there are serious and undeniable pluses and minuses on each side. And sometimes, there isn’t even a choice: economics dictate the dual-income couple, and all that’s left is the guilt. Why the unfairness? Why are women the ones most often tormented by that emotional decision? Why are women the ones subjected to that social and emotional pressure?

The answer is that modern society is the result of thousands of years of history and millions of years of evolution. Yes, things are changing, and much of that change is for the good (unfortunately, some of the change just makes the choices more difficult, or more painful). What can we do to help? More flexible work arrangements, pay equality, childcare support, telecommuting, more women with children in leadership positions, and more social acceptance of non-gender based family choice (e.g., the stay-at-home dad). We do have some policies that account for the economics of work-at-home spouses (e.g., we allow IRA contributions to both spouses, even when one isn’t working), but more could be done on that front (e.g., allowing work-at-home spouses significant 401K contributions, reconsidering Social Security benefit allocation, etc.). And yes, economic growth, education, and healthcare reform. And I agree with Rick Santorum that we must come up with ways to strengthen families, though I disagree with him on what most of those ways are.

When discussing these kinds of issues, it’s also important to remember that they’re inextricably bound up with emotion, not just other people’s emotions, but also with our own. Ironically, it’s sometimes our own deep emotions that we do not fully and honestly acknowledge when discussing these issues. Recognizing those emotions and being honest with ourselves about them is the first step to reasoned discourse and policy-making.

The second step, and an equally important one, is civility. Instead of denigrating others’ choices, we need to be validating them, even when they don’t agree with our own. The President and Michele Obama have done exactly that in their responses to the Hilary Rosen kerfluffle, in contrast to what’s happened on the Right.

***

Here are the two Hillary/Hilary quotes referenced above. And re. Hilary Rosen’s comment on Ann Romney’s not working: if it were so heinous, why didn’t right-wing blogger Erick Erickson (he was sitting right next to her and responded to what she said immediately) say anything about that at the time?



PS to Hillary Clinton: I hope you don’t mind that I used you as an example in this piece. I don’t mean any disrespect by it: on the contrary, your choices and the way you’ve made them have greatly increased my respect for you, and I hope that you do choose to run for President in 2016. (No offense to you, Joe: I think you’re great too.) I used you as an example in this piece because I think you’re the perfect illustration of how our society has changed, and how decisions like the ones that you’ve made, and that so many other men and women make, affect us all. Obviously I’m just speculating about some of your motivation, and if I got that wrong or intruded too much into personal issues, I apologize for that.

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