Hillary: Sexism or Self-Sabotage?

There were gender issues at play in Clinton's Presidential run, but they weren't what did her in. Are we finally ready for a postgender conversation about the choices all women have to make?

Hillary Clinton did not hit a glass ceiling. Wealthy and powerful Democrats anointed her as their Presidential nominee years ago. She was lowered from above on a jeweled scaffold, and the rest was supposed to be easy. But in the end, Senator Clinton blamed the failure of her campaign on sexist attitudes and media coverage. Some of her followers are pursuing these charges by calling for media boycotts. Even former President Bill Clinton railed against the sexist disrespect he claimed the media had aimed at his wife (this from the man who had subjected her to marital humiliation on a galactic scale).

Did Hillary Clinton encounter sexism along the way? Yes. Many, if not most, women do. A study published last month in the Journal of Child Development reports that 90% of teenage girls have experienced sexual harassment. Last year, a survey released by the Defense Dept. indicated that 34% of active-duty women in the U.S. armed forces reported having experienced sexual harassment. In 2006, 62% of college women acknowledged having been sexually harassed. A 2004 Harris Poll found that 31% of all female workers had been harassed at work. A recent study of university employees showed that more than 40% of faculty women were sexually harassed, as were a large plurality of women and men among service, clerical, and student employees.

A Stubborn Stain

In 2006, as in 1997, sex discrimination accounted for 30.7% of the total charges brought to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The pay gap between men and women continues to be wide—a 31% difference 10 years after college graduation. Working mothers are frustrated by the lack of opportunities for good part-time jobs, and their families suffer. Studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, the National Women's Business Council, and others have repeatedly shown the disadvantages women face in their access to insurance, credit, and health care. The scarcity of women in public- and private-sector leadership is notorious and shameful. Sexism has remained a stubborn stain, and the collective will to confront it seems to have gone dark in recent years.

But was it sexism that brought Senator Clinton down? Or was her campaign torpedoed by the choices she made in response to the inevitable challenges raised by gender and sexism? Clinton's tortuous journey from self-proclaimed next commander-in-chief to self-professed victim of the glass ceiling reflects the many choices that women encounter daily: Do we confine ourselves to the stereotypes of our sex? Do we adapt to a man's world by making ourselves more masculine? Or do we take a leap of faith along a less well defined "postgender" path, finding new ways to inhabit old roles and moving beyond the stereotypes of both sexes?

These were tough calls when I boarded this train 30 years ago, and as Senator Clinton has shown, they are no easier today. Her choices over the past months have prompted me to consider my own choices over the past decades and reflect on what I learned.

Navigating Without Maps

I think of my generation—women who entered the workforce in the late 1970s and early '80s—as "the bodies over the barbed wire." Many of us were the first to cross the threshold. Then we were the only woman in the room. We were on our own, traveling an unforgiving frontier, when Mrs. Clinton was cocooned in her First Lady status in Arkansas then Washington, or quietly attending Wal-Mart (WMT) board meetings while that company racked up one of the worst sex discrimination records in U.S. corporate history. There were few options in those days for confronting sexism. There was no one to tell; no precedent to guide us. Most of us chose to march into the headwinds and do our jobs well.

Back in the wild west of sexism, simply going to work could be pretty crazy. On my first day as a consultant to the head of a large corporate division in 1976, I had to defend myself from graphic, completely unambiguous sexual advances, using the new briefcase my parents had given me to celebrate my first professional job. My idealism took a hit, but so did the client's nose. There was no one to tell without risking my project, so I just showed up for work the next day. My client, his face black and blue, never said a word, and neither did I. We treated one another with professional courtesy, though I secretly regarded him with the disgust accorded an unusually large and nasty-looking bug. My work with employees in his division continued successfully for more than a year, when the project was completed.

Later, with my Harvard PhD in hand, I was hired to join the faculty of the Harvard Business School, where I was one of the first women to come up the ranks and be awarded tenure and an endowed chair. None of that protected me from sexist foolishness. On my first day of class, feeling anxiety so acute that my teeth hurt, a nearly naked woman burst through the door—a belly dancer ordered in like pizza by a group of male students to protest their first female professor. I hustled her out of the room shouting "This is a university!" But I was later chastised by my department chair, an expert in leadership. He looked at me with pity and said: "You should have let her finish the routine. Now the students will give you a poor evaluation at the end of the course." They did.

A Flasher in the Front Seat

There was much more than I could tell you here, both funny and sad. Should I mention the famous elected official whom I was asked to drive to an awards ceremony? He unceremoniously exposed himself to me from the passenger seat. I forced him out of my car in the middle of a Boston bridge on that cold January night. Or the times my legs were mentioned in the student newspaper? A dean said: "We can't do anything about it. You should have a sense of humor." Or showing up somewhere to give a lecture only to find the crowd visibly disquieted because they were expecting a man? "We thought you were an Indian software engineer." Or the senior professor who implied he would support my tenure if I slept with him? I told him he could do whatever he wanted, that I didn't care to have his support. Then I quietly began to dial his wife. He grabbed the phone from me and stammered an apology.

Once I had my kids, the sexism took on a different hue, but was no less offensive. Like the colleague who admonished me, "If you want to raise your own children, you should teach at Simmons, not HBS." Or the dean determined to intimidate me with the proclamation "Harvard Business School professors do not work part time."

Early on I tried to fit in. Like a lot of other women, I tried to be more masculine. I reengineered my appearance—cutting short my unruly hair and wearing suits—then my behavior, and ultimately my very self. Slowly I noticed that I dreaded going to work. It had turned into something that had to be endured. In time it dawned on me: I hadn't come all this way just to turn into a man. I had to find a way to be in their world but make it my own. That meant a leap of faith into the unknown, compelled by a sense that forfeiting my self was too high a price. So I grew my hair longer and dressed like a woman again.

Avoiding the Male Stereotype

Instead of adopting the HBS macho teaching style, I cultivated my own approach. I explored how to move beyond the stereotype of a woman, without turning into the stereotype of a man. To me this meant not being submissive just to be liked, but not forcing myself to be aggressive just to fit in. I tried to respond by following my own moral compass. I tried to be an individual who happened to be a woman. I made a lot of mistakes along the way. But my leap of faith brought a steady flow of joyful energy that drove my intellectual work and anchored me when I faced the inevitable hard choices in work and love.

My experiences are not unique. Most of the women I know have faced similar challenges, and many came to a similar place. Millions of women less privileged than I have endured far worse. The way I look at it, our determination not to be derailed by sexism produced a society replete with women graduates, doctors, lawyers, police, academics, technicians, writers, managers, artists, engineers, businesspeople—workers and professionals of every stripe. We paved the way for "girl power." We made it possible for a woman to go anywhere and do anything, like becoming President.

We set the stage for Hillary's historic opportunity to throw a lifeline to a careworn nation fed up with the head-butting, chest-thumping, feather-preening, teeth-baring men in charge. I, like many others, hoped she would stand on our shoulders—her success would be the legacy of all we had endured. The world would see that it was possible for a woman to rise above the stereotype of her sex, without becoming the stereotype of its opposite. The daily confrontation with sexism wasn't going to melt away, but it would be irreversibly altered when bathed in this new postgender light.

A Woman Who Could Lead Like a Man

But Senator Clinton blinked. She didn't take the leap of faith that so many of us had. She chose to present herself as a woman who could lead like a man, rather than as a woman who could lead. The female vote was taken for granted; she courted the men. As the campaign faltered, the need to prove herself more than a mere woman propelled her to a grim place of bluster and swagger where she tried to outmacho the machos. Instead of forging a path to a new postgender candidacy, she succumbed to counterfeiting a warrior's résumé—dodging sniper fire and forging peace treaties—while threatening Iran, knocking back boilermakers, and posturing for those 3 a.m. phone calls. But voters in Indiana and North Carolina showed they were not impressed by her manly strut.

It was only then that she turned to her female identity and, in a last-ditch effort to rally more women, she blamed her failures on sexism. In the ultimate paradox, it was her unlikely opponent—a young man of two races, raised by a woman, father of young daughters—who took up the challenge of postgender leadership. He sustained a moral center that could not be reduced to any gender stereotype and refused to be drawn into her macho game.

So where does Clinton's candidacy leave us? No one can now doubt that our country will back a nominee for high office who is a woman. Among the ironies of unintended consequences, the disrespectful nonsense aimed at Senator Clinton might serve to rekindle our national determination to confront sexist attitudes and practices at work and in society. But perhaps most compelling about Hillary Clinton's journey is that it invites every woman to reflect on how she chooses to behave in the daily rendezvous with sexism. It is a cautionary tale that reminds us we are not condemned to ricochet between the two poles of sexist stereotypes. It suggests that many of us are eager, hungry even, for a postgender conversation. We may even be ready to ask ourselves if the choices we make reflect the human beings we wish to be.

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