Who Can Judge Authenticity?
No one can, so stop the Clinton damnation
This article was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on March 31, 2016.
By Nancy Loeb
I voted for Barack Obama in 2008. I am also a woman who was over 50 years old back then and am now pushing 60.
Before and after the latest primary contests in Washington, Hawaii and Alaska, the discussion among Democrats choosing sides between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders— too often in vociferous tones that border on a progressive version of Trumpism — focuses on arguments for and against gender identity.
But the discussion misses why women of my generation continue to see the significance of a woman being taken seriously as a candidate for the presidency. And the discussion stretches beyond party lines and allows us to look at a legacy of gender inequities.
We as a generation of women are far more forgiving of what younger voters decry as Clinton's lack of authenticity.
In 2008, I voted for Obama for president because I so strongly objected to the Iraq invasion and believed — and still believe — that Clinton knew it was wrong, but she was already planning a run for president and went along.
Like many younger women today — as well as younger men and people of both sexes of my generation — it's hard to see that move as anything other than political expediency and morally wrong. Likewise we view as problematic Clinton's failure to come out much sooner for marriage and gender equality.
It's far more likely than not — especially considering Bill Clinton's attempt in the 1990s to bring gender justice to the military and the backlash against it — that Hillary, like Obama, has always favored all forms of equality but held back for clearly political reasons.
Let's credit Sanders' supporters with being uncompromising on principle — not exhibiting sexism on these issues.
But there is another barrage of hostility being fired at Clinton — particularly among younger women — that I, and many women of my generation, feel is misaimed. In blistering critiques, Clinton is criticized for lacking "authenticity." By this, I assume her critics mean she does not show the world her true feelings or real emotions.
But criticisms and jokes about her "stiffness" or her supposedly fake smile completely miss the challenge to authenticity for women who came of age in Clinton's generation. Even Jimmy Kimmel's now viral "mansplaining" skit miss the point. All of this may be why some women from the "feminist generation" fired back so hard.
I am a highly educated, intelligent and successful woman, and I could not have succeeded in the legal and business worlds as my authentic self. The "me" I am most comfortable with is naturally shy, fairly soft-spoken, inclined to care too much about how what I say and do affects other people. I see great value in kindness.
I tried being "me" early in my career, and it simply didn't work. I was deemed "too nice" by a man who interviewed me for a job at a bank, and a man interviewing me at a major newspaper as a business writer was far more interested in knowing "what color are your eyes anyway?" than whether I could do the job.
In my first year as an associate at a law firm, men I worked with praised my work but questioned whether I was tough enough to do the job. The value of my brains and my thoughts was lost in the soft-spoken projection of my voice.
For 25 years, I learned to speak much more forcefully and make it clear at all times that I knew when I was right. I saved "nice" for friends and home. I wore mostly black business suits with white blouses that said nothing about me as a woman. I also gave up contact lenses for glasses.
This other me succeeded. I was a highly compensated attorney and legal "boss" in multibillion dollar companies.
And there was never a day when I felt entirely comfortable being myself.
That was from the late 1980s until I left the corporate world in 2007. It would be nice if I could say the world has changed. I don't really think so.
More women are better educated, as women represent the majority of people enrolled in colleges and universities in the U.S. But they're still being paid only 79 percent of what men are being paid, regardless of the occupation and the level of education required, and still are concentrated in the lowest paying jobs.
And, we've learned that when women are given jobs in higher paying fields, rather than their pay going up, everyone's pay is brought down. Women attorneys fit right in.
In my profession of law, although women now make up close to 50 percent of most law school classes (including at the top 10 law schools), they are still only 17 percent of equity partners in law firms. Women are only 17 to 21 percent of general counsels in Fortune 500 and Fortune 501-1000 companies.
At law schools, women make up only 20 percent of law school deans, and they make up fewer than 30 percent of federal and state judges.
Here's where Clinton's supposed lack of authenticity provokes so much frustration.
She has painfully lived with the consequences of being authentic as it played out in public. Very few people question her intelligence, and by all accounts, she was a highly skilled and successful attorney. She also used to use her own name — Rodham.
That changed quickly when Bill Clinton ran for president and even use of her own surname as a middle name drew harsh criticism. Today she is Hillary Clinton.
Beginning with Bill's first run for the presidency, attention has been focused on her attire and appearance. Then and now, the observations are sometimes cruelly critical. At a recent fundraiser for Bernie Sanders, a comedian thought a funny joke was to disqualify Hillary as president because of her "cankles." No wonder she wears pantsuits!
Recently, male commentators pointed out Clinton was "shouting," rather than discussing the content of her speech. While people might also point out that Sanders is shouting, no one is missing the substance of his message. Unlike Clinton, male commentators are not telling Bernie to "smile."
I certainly don't agree with Gloria Steinem's criticism of younger women who support Sanders. But I do understand the frustration of women who fought so hard for the rights many younger women assume are permanent. I also don't think it's necessary to send these younger women to hell as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright suggested.
But criticizing Clinton for her lack of authenticity — as opposed to her positions — is sexist. I suspect, the same will be true for Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — if we ever get to see her plunge into presidential politics.
Who can judge the authenticity of a politician? Or anyone? Leveling the criticism of inauthenticity at the only woman running for president in 2016 is the wrong topic for debate. Let's focus on what she has to say instead of whether she smiles sincerely when she says it.
- Nancy C. Loeb is the director of the Environmental Advocacy Center and assistant clinical professor at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.