Who thought that in stuffy old England in the 1980s a woman could act like a man and thrive, but here in the New World, Hillary Clinton still has to watch her p’s and q’s in 2013? Margaret Thatcher didn’t change a hair, hedge a bet or trim a sail. She never had to be told to lean in because she never leaned back. She was certain, opinionated and strident to the point of, yes, shrillness. Listen to her on gay rights: It’s fingernails on a chalkboard.
In the United States, three decades after Thatcher, a woman still has to back into her positions. Watch Clinton come out for same-sex marriage in a well-rehearsed video – after it was entirely safe. (Every Democratic senator but three politically vulnerable residents of red states has done so.) After leaving her post as secretary of state, she laid low, got some rest and cleaned out her closets. When she re-emerged, she did so at soft-focus women’s events and at her husband’s philanthropy, the Clinton Global Initiative.
If there is one thing Clinton has learned through 40 years or so of feminine ambition, it is to be less Thatcher and more Ginger Rogers: Do everything a man does but backward and in high heels, as Ann Richards memorably phrased it. (What’s more, do it with a smile so ingratiating that it’s practically an apology.)
When Clinton first ran for the U.S. Senate in New York, she began her campaign with a listening tour. Yes, one of the most articulate and intelligent women in politics was mute for months as she traveled the state entreating voters to accept her. Her coyness isn’t in her nature, but it appears to be in ours. What Britain accepted in 1979, a powerful female leader, we still talk about like a total eclipse of the sun – we may see one in our lifetime, but maybe not.
After winning election, Clinton went to the Senate and promptly disappeared, placating not just then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who had expressed hopes he might never see her, but also her Democratic brethren, who feared an eclipse of their own.
While Thatcher thrust herself forward as a conviction conservative, Clinton learned the art of leaning back. Early on, she had changed her name to Clinton to help her husband in Arkansas. She apologized for practicing law. For her husband’s first presidential run in 1992, she changed her persona as often as her hair, desperately trying to modulate the public’s visceral reactions to her. Two for the price of one? Working instead of staying home to bake cookies? Not so fast, little lady.
Once in the White House, she worked tirelessly to fix health care. What was she thinking? The failure of Democrats to pass a bill was laid entirely at her feet. In fact, many things that went wrong in the Clinton White House (the travel office fiasco, personnel clashes) were often traced to her butting into the man’s world of the West Wing.
What worked best was standing by her man. That, and the sympathy born of domestic betrayal and humiliation, finally raised Clinton’s favorability ratings enough to run for the Senate.
Everyone thinks she’s running for president in 2016. But Clinton knows from sad experience that the minute she steps into the ring, she will no longer be the good girl who knows her place. Would she even be deemed such a formidable candidate if she hadn’t swallowed her pride and once again played helpmate after 2008 – this time at Barack Obama’s State Department?
One way to look at 2008 is to say that Clinton was hit by a tsunami called Obama. Another is to conclude that voters were readier to embrace an enigmatic, untested, first-term senator than the nation’s leading female politician. She lost in 2008 because in the U.S., unlike Britain, we still don’t know what to do with an uppity woman.