The Democratic National Convention: Hillary Clinton opts for feminism-lite in her historic speech

It is hard being a feminist in 2016.

I mean, not hard like Elizabeth-Cady-Stanton-at-Seneca-Falls hard or Shulamith-Firestone-Dialetic-of-Sex hard, but hard in its own troubling way to be both pleased that we are seeing the first woman nominee for president walk onto to the stage of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia to give an acceptance speech, as Hillary Clinton did last night, and troubled that a woman still has to so carefully navigate motherhood and work, that these two things are still presented as opposite extremes, that we can't just admit that hundreds of thousands of moms (and grandmoms) go to work very capably every day without taxonomy of womanhood sorting them into these polar roles of mother (soft and empathetic) or worker (hard and capable).

But I rant.

I rant and yet I understand. The Clinton campaign made a calculated decision to have Chelsea Clinton stand before the mic and focus almost exclusively on Hillary's "softer" qualities of gentle mothering and care for children.

"I've seen her holding the hands of mothers, worried about how they'll feed their kids, worried about how they'll get them the health care they need," Chelsea Clinton told the audience.

"My earliest memory is my mom picking me up after I had fallen down, giving me a big hug and reading me 'Goodnight Moon.' From that moment, to this one, every single memory I have of my mom is that regardless of what was happening in her life, she was always, always there for me." (And if I were working for one of the many, many media outlets who now weave a "fact-checking" notation into the speech transcripts they post, I'd call her on this one; moms—and dads—actually can't be "always, always there" for their kids because jobs or volunteer work or multiple siblings with conflicting needs always complicate this, not in insurmountable ways but in ways that make us feel a bit bad but probably help our kids learn to be self-reliant.)

Chelsea went on to say: "Whenever my mom was away for work, which thankfully didn't happen very often. She left notes for me to open every day she was gone."

And that line bothers me—"which thankfully didn’t happen very often." Maybe I'm nitpicking but I have to think that as the Clintons and their handlers prepared for this monumental speech, they worried about every line. This qualifier was intentional. It would not have been dropped into a daughter's speech about her father because Americans are perfectly willing to accept that a man with a big, important job sometimes goes out of town and misses his daughter's soccer game.

In my mind's eye, I see the Clinton team strategizing in a backroom and asking, How can we have Chelsea deliver a picture of her mom's parenting that will be palatable to the American public? How can we make it clear that Hillary's job never interfered with her primary womanly role, motherhood?

And then, as they prepared Hillary's speech, I see them asking how do we counter this notion of traditional femininity (read: soft and cuddly) with a picture of a strong leader (read: not at all soft and cuddly) who is capable of eradicating ISIS?

Thankfully, from a public presentation perspective, the latter is easier for Hillary to convey. She gave a speech that affirmed she was strident, determined, and smart. She wisely focused on unifying Americans, a theme artfully laid out the night before by President Obama as a counter to Donald Trump's divisiveness. (And it is hard for her to follow in the president's oratory footsteps; Obama is simply a better speaker with his pitch-perfect delivery.)

"America is once again at a moment of reckoning," Clinton said. "Powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart. Bonds of trust and respect are fraying. And just as with our founders, there are no guarantees. It truly is up to us. We have to decide whether we all will work together so we all can rise together." She offered this vision as an alternative to Trump, who she said "wants to divide us - from the rest of the world, and from each other."

While both Michelle and Barack Obama declined to directly engage with Trump's attacks—"when they go low, we go high," Michelle explained in her convention speech on Monday night—Clinton went after Trump with guns blazing.

Clinton talked about her plans for change, and then noted, "Now, you didn't hear any of this from Donald Trump at his convention. He spoke for 70-odd minutes—and I do mean odd. And he offered zero solutions."

She went on to say many people mistakenly laughed off Trump: "They think he couldn't possibly mean all the horrible things he says—like when he called women 'pigs.' Or said that an American judge couldn't be fair because of his Mexican heritage. Or when he mocks and mimics a reporter with a disability. Or insults prisoners of war like John McCain—a true hero and patriot who deserves our respect."

She pointed out that this was dangerous thinking and then—haha!—went after Trump's masculinity.

"I can't put it any better than Jackie Kennedy did after the Cuban Missile Crisis," Clinton said. "She said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time was that a war might be started—not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men, the ones moved by fear and pride."

About halfway through her speech, Clinton posed a question—"Ask yourself: Does Donald Trump have the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief?"—and then delivered my favorite zinger of the night, "A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons."

She addressed women's issues directly only a few times, noting that we'd reached a "milestone" as this is "the first time that a major party has nominated a woman for President." She urged the crowd, "[L]et's keep going, until every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves."

She later promised, "We're going to help you balance family and work," adding, "if fighting for affordable childcare and paid family leave is playing the 'woman card,' then deal me in."

The crowd of supporters way up in the cheap seats where I was sitting joined Clinton in the conclusion of this familiar stump-speech line, shouting in unison with her, "then deal me in!" as I sat silently, appreciating this brief melding of moms-who-work instead of moms-or-work while simultaneously lamenting the incrementalism of "affordable childcare" instead of universal, free childcare.

Still, there were encouraging low-key signs of progress and many, of course, that were notably absent from the RNC convention. For example, there was a prominently-placed, pleasant lounge area set aside for breast-feeding or pumping for new moms, which I took as the DNC's tacit acknowledgment that plenty of women—like Chelsea Clinton, who has a five-week-old baby but was clearly working the convention every night on behalf of her mother—really don't posit the role of mother against that of worker, but comfortably wear both hats at once.

And hey, in 2016 why can't we roll with that?

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