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Ann Bradley

Clinton's cookies

'I am the grandson of a working woman, the son of a single mother, the husband of a working wife who earns far more than I, and the father of a daughter who wants to build space stations in the sky....I have learned that building up women does not diminish men.' This was how presidential candidate Bill Clinton introduced himself to the women's caucus at the Democratic Party convention.

The New York convention was stage-managed to parade the six women candidates whom the Democrats are putting up for election to the Senate, and their 34 female candidates for the House of Representatives. It may not sound like many, but it was enough to inspire one leading Democratic feminist to declare that, 'we are on our way to the top and nobody can bring us down'.

The Democrats' emphasis on playing the 'gender card' this year has been portrayed as just another sign of the times, an indication that the old chauvinistic ways are gradually being replaced by windows of opportunity for women. American papers are fond of describing 1992 as the Year of the Woman. They claim that women's issues now dominate the political agenda and cite the Anita Hill sexual harassment case and the recent supreme court debate on abortion as key issues which pushed women's interests to the fore.

This is a curious observation since in neither case can women's interests be said to have prevailed. Clarence Thomas made it on to the supreme court despite allegations that he had sexually harassed women colleagues. He then participated in the supreme court decision to allow Pennsylvania state to restrict abortion - a decision which effectively drove a coach and horses through the constitutional right to end an unwanted pregnancy early.

In the light of all this, Clinton's feminist declarations will most likely be felt as a breath of fresh air. And one problem with fresh air is that if you're not used to it, it can go to your head. There's a danger that after the crusades by Reagan and Bush to elevate conservative values, the slightest hint of liberalism in Clinton's rhetoric will be seized upon as evidence that better times for women are around the corner. In fact, the way in which the Democrats are playing the gender card will be of far more benefit to Bill Clinton than to American women.

The Democrats are using women's issues to win votes and embarrass the Bush administration. Pushing women to the front of the convention stage was good for Clinton's image. Opinion polls show that US voters, especially women, are cynical about the traditional parties and want change. Clinton has no new policies, but he can at least give the party a new look. The women candidates and the quasi-feminist rhetoric are part of the image change.

This may win some votes from Republican women, but the main intention is to galvanise and inspire the Democrats' own party activists, and help create a sense of momentum behind the party.

Even Clinton's declarations that he is 'pro-choice on abortion' may mean little more than an attempt to hit Bush where it hurts. During election time, it makes sense for Clinton to carry the pro-choice arrow in his quiver. Bush's well-known anti-abortion sentiments are an issue of grave concern to many Republicans. A survey earlier this year in the Washington Post found that more than half of registered Republicans support legal abortion. So Bush's stated intention to use his presidency to pack the supreme court with pro-life judges is not thought to be a vote winner.

Bush is caught in a political quandary. If he softens his stand on abortion, it will make him look even more indecisive and opportunist. But if he sticks to his guns and is re-elected, he will undoubtedly have the opportunity to carry out his threat. The prospect of a possible end to legal abortion is said to be making otherwise die-hard Republicans think about switching to Clinton.

Every time Clinton makes a pro-women speech or mentions abortion, he is rubbing salt into Bush's wounds. That is why he will play the gender card at every opportunity. But Clinton also understands that to be successful, he mustn't appear to undermine old-fashioned family values. The result is a curious paradox.

While Clinton pushes career women to the fore in one context, he stresses their importance in family life in another. Every concession he makes in favour of women's right to independence is underwritten with a promise not to undermine traditional family life. And while it is possible to be committed to both in the sphere of rhetoric, it is impossible in practice. After all, traditional family responsibilities are precisely what women must be liberated from if they are to experience real equality.

An incongruity that has not escaped some Democrat supporters is that while women have been paraded on the political rostrum, Mrs Hillary Clinton has been wheeled out to provide the traditional role of all-American cookie-baker and home-maker.

Hillary dropped a clanger earlier this year when she tried to fight back against accusations that she was a careerist with the retort that she didn't want to waste her life baking cookies. When the Republicans picked on this as a slur against the nation's cookie-bakers, she responded by challenging Barbara Bush to a cookie-baking battle.

Women across the USA are now being invited to try out, and vote their preference for, the favoured cookie recipes of Hillary Clinton and Barbara Bush. The women's magazine which has organised the contest will announce the cookie war results to coincide with the presidential election results in November.

I suppose it could be argued that Bill Clinton is not responsible for his wife's antics (it seems much more likely that she tells him what to say). But the cookie carry-on should sound a warning bell for American women expecting some far-reaching change for the better. This may be the year of the woman candidate, but not much has changed for the male candidates' wives.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 47, September 1992



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