Here we go: On Hillary, feminism, and my promise to the universe

Okay, off the cuff, NO redaction, I’m just going to write this and see what happens.

I’d like to tell you, beloved and probably imaginary audience, about a day in 2008.

I was working as a researcher, a wonderful job with a degree of flexibility. So February 4, I asked my boss if he’d mind if I voted in the morning. I had no idea how long the lines would be or how late it would make me to work, which is why I wanted his permission to do it before work rather than after. He readily agreed, congratulated me on my adherence to civic duty, and made a joke about knowing who I was going to be voting for.

I was glad he thought he knew. The question made my stomach hurt.

A bit further back, I remember excited media speculation about Elizabeth Dole. As her husband ran for president, pundits suggested that she might succeed him eight years later. I remember wondering how I’d feel if the first female candidate for president on a national ticket was someone whose politics fundamentally opposed mine. I remember having vague, up-too-late conversations with floormates in the lounge, wondering whether the United States of America would first be prepared to have a non-white or non-male president: which ingrained prejudice could we overcome first? In 2008, I remember thinking: how strange that that question should be put to this literal test.

But the worst part, in 2008, was that I still didn’t know which candidate to vote for.

February 5, 2008

It was cold that day. Cold for Georgia, anyway, which meant it was mildly unpleasant standing in the long winding line outside the elementary school. We huddled a bit closer together than strangers normally might. And there I was, in line, still not knowing what I was going to do when I got to the end of the line.

I considered my options again. As a woman, I knew I wanted to see a female president. As an ally, I appreciated how momentous it would be to see a non-white president. But as a Democrat, I worried deeply about what four more years of hawkish Republicanism would mean for my country’s role in the international arena. The pressing question, it seemed to me, was which candidate was most electable against the likely Republican candidates.

I reviewed what I knew about the candidates. Fundamentally, their platforms didn’t seem that different to me — or at least, their platforms seemed sufficiently variable and subject to political whimsy that the differences didn’t matter much. But I had felt the charisma oozing from Barack Obama. I remembered the 2004 Democratic convention, at which a friend had been a delegate. I talked to her just after she saw Obama speak. “I just saw the guy who’s going to win the White House in 2008,” she said, and I was struck by her absolute conviction. The man has some presence, you have to admit.

And Hillary Clinton seemed exactly the opposite. Her declaration in 2007 seemed cocky and entitled, and her ads since had seemed like low blow after low blow aimed at Obama, whiny and aghast that she had to compete at all. And editorial after editorial assured me that she was — wait for it — “abrasive.” Nobody who worked in Bill Clinton’s administration seemed to like her. Her campaign for senate felt like machination. After two Georges Bush, she represented the perpetuation of a dynastic system in the United States which seemed fundamentally objectionable. And… abrasive and entitled and weepy and unlikable.

In the end, I was struggling to choose between a guy I found very personable and compelling, whose election offered a significant symbolic impact, and a woman whose only redeeming attribute was her symbolic impact.

I voted for Obama. As did a majority of other voters in the primary that day.

Super Tuesday didn’t end Clinton’s campaign definitively, but it wounded her grievously, and her campaign limped along thereafter. I’ll leave the analysis of that process to others. What I know is this: Super Tuesday changed everything for me. In retrospect.

After Super Tuesday, when Hillary Clinton didn’t immediately withdraw, when she had the audacity to continue fighting for something in which she believed, I couldn’t understand what was going on. Didn’t she understand that we didn’t want her? America doesn’t want you, Hillary. Go away. What did she think was going to happen? Who did she think she was?

I don’t remember exactly what it was that bothered me first. An offhand remark from Obama, I think, that I felt was vaguely sexist. I think I googled it to see if any bloggers out there in the wide cyberverse thought so too. Many did. Some of them had compelling analysis of how Obama’s whole campaign had been sexist. As McCain failed to criticize the subtle racism and xenophobia of his followers, so Obama failed to criticize the privilege, sexism, and patriarchal assumptions of his. I read about this. I learned more about exciting words like “privilege” and “patriarchy.” I read a phenomenal book called Big Girls Don’t Cry by the phenomenal writer Rebecca Traister. I read and read and read.

More importantly, I watched the 2008 campaign. I watched two candidates — not at all comparable in policy, or qualifications I might add, but similar in biological construction — savaged by the media and their colleagues. It felt gross.

And that, my friends, is how I stumbled into the feminist blogosphere, and how my personal rejection of Hillary Clinton in 2008 made me a relatively angry feminist.

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April 12, 2015

Today I sent Hillary Clinton a donation. I thought about it for a minute, because I know how hard it is to get oneself taken off the mailing lists if you express even the slightest interest in a candidate. But I owed her that donation, and I made it, and it felt great.

Here’s the thing: I’m not even going to 100% promise you I’ll vote for Hillary next November. We have no idea what will happen between now and then. Lots could happen. If it’s conclusively proven that she runs a top-secret puppy mill in her backyard, that’s going to piss me off. She could do lots of things that would compel me to make other choices. Another awesome, feminist candidate could suddenly appear and look viable and even more attractive. A satellite could fall out of orbit and land on my head, or Hillary’s. This is not a declaration of undying devotion, is my point.

All this blog post is, is a verbal Kermit-flail of excitement, because y’all, Hillary Rodham Clinton has decided to give me a second chance.

Now, dear readers, if you’re thinking any of the things 2008 Me thought about Mrs. Clinton, I’d like you to do some things. Read up on the expectations we place on women (that we don’t place on men) to be charming and sociable. Think about the kinds of conversations we had about Hillary (and Sarah Palin!) in 2008, and whether we’d have similar conversations about candidates with Y chromosomes.  If these things make you angry, maybe spend some time with some Feminism 101 blogs and think a bit about how this bullshit affects all of us, whether we are male or female, whether we embrace the term “feminist” or not. (But Beyoncé thinks you should.)

As for Hillary? There’s lots to evaluate. There’s her record on women’s issues, her demeanor as Secretary of State to a man who trounced her in the polls, her sense of humor, her tenacity in the face of Super Tuesday 2008, her qualifications… there’s a lot. There are compelling arguments against electing Hillary, including the aforementioned dynastic concerns, although we’ll have to be consistent about applying those concerns to the several Bush candidates waiting in the wings. She has obviously spent the past eight years thinking a great deal about her tone — even using the word “tone” makes me cringe a little, but it’s true. The declaration video released yesterday shows none of the entitlement with which so many took issue in 2008. Maybe she’s really ready this time.

But you know what? Let’s talk about that entitlement. The woman is qualified. She’s better qualified than a lot of people who have appeared on national tickets, that’s for sure. She’s at least as qualified as all of them. And she’s wanted this her whole life, and made no secret of it. If Barack “Charisma” Obama hadn’t shown up on the scene in 2008, she probably would have had the nomination in the bag. Our social perspectives on bragging might have made her look a little cocky, but would that have been as offensive in a man? I look forward to watching Jeb Bush run for president and seeing if he does it with abject humility. Certainly his brother was neither cocky nor inclined to use family connections to get where he wanted to go (that’s sarcasm, folks). Clinton’s cockiness in 2008 was, and is, worth an eye-roll, not the loss of votes.

I’m not telling you that you have to vote for Hillary; very far from it. But, my friends, I am definitely asking one thing of you. Let’s all do the next eighteen months critically. Let’s call out the sexist jokes, the eyerolls from male candidates (“Bitches, amirite?”), the dogwhistles about her qualifications and her potential PMS, any comments about pantsuits or cankles or scrunchies, the utter and complete bullshit that appears to be inevitable. Let’s just ask of each other that Hillary be allowed to run on her actual qualifications — and no, for the last time, that does not include anything negative you’ve heard about Benghazi — I mean actual facts. She’s a politician, she’s made enough poor choices and stuck her foot in her mouth often enough that there’s no need for conspiracy theories. And it’s facts on which she deserves to be judged, just like every other person on the ballot along with her.

That’s all I’m asking. Judge Hillary on actual facts, and hold the media and other candidates to that standard. And this time, this blessed second chance I’ve been given, I’m going to hold myself to that standard too.

Names and all that baggage

I started a new job in May. A few weeks after I started, a nice gentleman from the properties department stopped by and gave me a nameplate featuring my first name and my husband’s last name. And I kind of wigged out. It didn’t feel entirely reasonable; all my paperwork for the hiring and payroll etc. had featured exactly that name. And it is my legal name, if you’re going by first and last (I have three more in the middle). They didn’t do anything wrong.

It’s even more complicated, and comes up more often, in this particular work environment. My workplace is managed by a university, and I happen to have been a student at that university once upon a time — and long before my name change. So I have a record here, and a preexisting email address and login and payroll code etc., and all those things were just reactivated when I was hired. So in some places I’m my premarital self, and in others I’m my postmarital self.

What I’m not, in any of those situations, is what I have chosen to call myself.

I don’t make decisions easily, and changing my name wasn’t an exception. I grew up in the era of hyphenation, when many of my friends had last names too long to fit on standardized test forms. It was also an era in which divorce became normalized, so when someone’s mother had a different last name you never really knew if that was a feminist choice or a divorce thing. It seemed like an issue. It was a complication. And at the time of my marriage, we were still very undecided about having kids. But I knew that if I were to have children, I’d like to have the same last name they had. And I know that in our culture that’s nearly always the father’s name.

When we got married, my husband exhibited what I think is a very common lack of concern about this issue. As an American male, he grew up thinking of his name as a permanent thing. I think it’s a huge psychological difference, growing up wondering if you’ll change your name or never considering that an option, and that’s where the feminism comes in. I had that worry; he didn’t. He also had absolutely no need for me to change my name. He didn’t care. It wasn’t an issue on his radar.

And in fact, that was what bothered me the most: it seemed like this should be a family issue. I wanted our name to be a family name, something we both had, something that indicated our new tribe together. Something our kids, should they occur, would have too. I really felt most drawn to the very unusual idea of picking a new name for both of us. But my husband wasn’t interested. Again, he’d grown up never considering the flexibility of his name. It just wasn’t a thing. While he was willing to have some conversations, he wasn’t going to be doing anything too crazy.

So we ended up at the Social Security office, minutes away from the formal name-change meeting, and I still didn’t know exactly what I was going to do. My parents had gifted me with four names to begin with. Which one(s) did I want to eliminate? The patriarchal marker given to me by my father? The one preceding it, which was the patriarchal marker of my mother’s father? Or one of the two given names my parents had chosen for me with love? Whose name was least important? How could I make that decision? I was pretty close to a meltdown.

Finally I decided to make no decision. I just slapped one more name on the list. Four names is annoying; how much more annoying could five be? The Social Security guy kind of rolled his eyes at me, but he gave me a new card with five names on it.

You can’t go through the real world with five names, though. Try it. Every form you encounter ever has a blank for a “middle initial,” meaning that every form ever is for me an opportunity for a huge OMG MUST PICK ONE NAME panic attack. I worry sometimes about the legal issues that might be generated by my various combination of names. I’ve had DMV employees tell me it’s illegal to have more than three, so my driver’s license has one combination. The pharmacist chose to hyphenate my old name and my new one, so the name on my bottles of pills is yet another name. I was turned down for a credit card twice last year because they were doing a credit check using my maiden and married names mashed together as a single word (I have no idea why they did this). It’s a mess.

So I made a decision. In the grand tradition of the woman whose failed presidential campaign introduced me to the feminist blogosphere (a subject for another post another day), I decided to do a Hillary Rodham Clinton. I changed my name, but I am not losing who I was. And I’m choosing to ask you to use all three, which is where the choice and identity come in. I’m not going to make a fuss with credit card companies, etc. I’ll pick my battles. But where I can, this is what I’ve chosen.

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And that’s where I was when my new employers handed me a desk plate assigning me two names.

I didn’t hesitate too long to complain. In point of fact I’d imagine there are all sorts of reasons why they shouldn’t order name plates before consulting their employees. I might prefer to be called by a middle name or a nickname. The plate is there so people strolling by know what to call me; I ought to have some input into that. So I asked, and they were very apologetic and ordered me a new plate quickly, and it was all very pleasant.

But it made me think about it all again.

There’s another part to the story about the Social Security office. After I decided in a panic to keep all my names and the gentleman behind the desk rolled his eyes, my husband pushed his name-change form across the desk. He’s a traditionalist, yes, but one of my arguments had spoken to him, and he agreed that to some extent our names indicated our new tribe. So he wanted to take my maiden name as a second middle name. It’s a small change; as I noted above, having four names is more annoying than not and you always have to pick one middle initial — and he picks the one his parents gave him. But my name is there, lurking on his legal documents, and has even been included on his most recent academic diplomas. It was an important gesture to me and I deeply appreciated it.

And the Social Security guy laughed.

He said, “Seriously?” and he laughed.

Fundamentally, there is this truth: the fact that I — and hundreds of other women — have written angsty essays about what we chose and why we chose it and why we are happy or unhappy with our decision indicates that there is still a problem. Because you don’t see hundreds of men having this crisis. The allies who choose to change their names are awesome and their point is appreciated, but even they didn’t have this crisis. This crisis is still squarely on the shoulders of women, and as such, it is still very much a feminist issue.

I just don’t know what the answer is.

So in the meantime, I’m going with straddling the fence, and hoping it generates some conversation.