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Issue Date:  February 8, 2008

The 'girl' in power

A woman in the White House may be just more 'politics as usual'


Former president Bill Clinton is standing by his woman. “The girl’s doing pretty good, isn’t she?” he asked at a campaign stop with the crowd baying its consent. The girl is -- and with no doubt on what the meaning of “is” is.

But Hillary Clinton says little to upset her centrist Democratic base, as when she stepped back in the YouTube debate from being called a liberal because that might upset her new pal, Rupert Murdoch.

She took to a talk show in mid-January to explain how she stayed afloat during the Monica Lewinsky storm. “I had to dig down deep,” she said on the program that coincided with the 10th anniversary of the disclosure of her husband’s romp.

Hillary Clinton lets the voters know she is not in the old boys club.

This brings up the gender question. Does it matter that a woman is seeking the presidency? Will a feminine use of power differ substantially from a masculine use? Will the policies of a President Hillary Clinton be a noticeable break from the domestic and foreign policies of the past 43 male presidents?

I doubt it. Anatomy differs below the waist but not in the head. Hillary Clinton voted for George W. Bush’s war. They think alike on the death penalty.

Hillary Clinton eagerly went along with the boys during the Nevada debate when praising ROTC programs on U.S. campuses, just as Barack Obama and John Edwards gave their robust salutes too.

Gender discrimination is rampant in American society, from pay inequity, which has been amply documented, to child-rearing roles. Women are far more vulnerable to sexual assault than men. I’ve yet to hear of a battered men’s shelter.

But neither discrimination nor victimization has much to do with how women use political power. As secretary of state, Madeleine Albright was as war-minded in serving Bill Clinton during her tenure as Henry Kissinger was in his while advising Richard Nixon. Condoleezza Rice’s gender has not led her to break with the Bush war policies and agree with Nancy Pelosi’s call to bring home the troops. The voting records of the Senate’s 16 women -- 11 Democrats and 5 Republicans -- has more to do with party affiliation than sisterhood. Seventy-four women are in the House, a body with 42 African-Americans, one gay male and one lesbian. There, too, party loyalty comes before “You go, girl” bonding.

Jehan Sadat, widow of the slain Anwar Sadat of Egypt, once argued that “women are for peace always. They are for peace by nature.” A lovely sentiment, but it’s as unfounded as claiming that men are for war by nature.

Only rarely has gender mixed with politics. In 1917, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a pacifist, Republican and the first woman elected to Congress, was one of 50 House members to oppose U.S. entry into World War I. “As a woman, I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else,” she said. “I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.” For that insolence, she was blasted by suffragist groups. On Dec. 8, 1941, and back in Congress, Jeannette Rankin was then the only one to vote against going to war, repeating one of her favored lines: “You can no more win a war than win an earthquake.”

Whether accidentally or deliberately, it was another woman who went her lonely way in Congress amid war fever. Four days after Sept. 11, Barbara Lee, a California Democrat and daughter of an Army colonel, was the only member in either the Senate or House to vote no against a military response, one that led to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Barbara Lee was politically aligned with Jeannette Rankin but also with Sens. Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, the only two members of Congress who opposed sending troops to Vietnam in 1964.

Two women, two men. They were breaking the war barrier, not the gender barrier.

Colman McCarthy teaches peace studies at four universities and three high schools in the Washington area.

National Catholic Reporter, February 8, 2008

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