Hillary Clinton as Emma Woodhouse

Gramola Garai as Emma Woodhouse

Gramola Garai as Emma Woodhouse


Are Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorability ratings due to 25 years of nonstop GOP criticism? A wonderful New York Times article about how some women are endorsing her in part because she has been relentlessly attacked has me thinking of Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. Hold on a moment and I’ll explain.

In the article, Elizabeth Word Gutting relates all that her mother had to go through when her husband died in 1973, leaving her without an income even as she had a child to support. In the years that followed, she experienced many of the indignities that single mothers often suffered at the time, including hiring discrimination, sexual harassment, and problems with credit card, insurance, and finance companies. Here’s what this woman sees in Clinton:

For the first time in her life, my mom sees someone who can directly relate to her own experiences in a strong position to become president. Mrs. Clinton has led so many charges during her political career that have supported women, including fighting relentlessly for reproductive rights and speaking up for women and girls worldwide when she was secretary of state.

The author then reflects upon the moment during the Iowa primary when a young Bernie supporter asked Clinton a patronizing question about her unpopularity:

At a town hall a few months ago, a young man asked Mrs. Clinton why young people lacked enthusiasm for her.

She sounded a bit wounded, but she tried to explain what she’d been up against for so many years. Despite all the criticisms, she said, over the course of several decades in the public eye, all she could do was continue to stand her ground.

Hillary’s ability to stand her ground is why both mother and daughter are enthusiastically supporting her. The article concludes,

I also love that she is always the last woman standing. She has survived ceaseless attacks. It must get very tiring, and yet she never flags. She has been called a bitch and a witch and characterized as Lady Macbeth. She’s shrill, she shouts, she barks. She’s uninspiring, she’s unlikable and she’s not exciting the base. Sometimes I think that many people in this country are still scared to see a powerful woman. But I am more ready for her than ever.

In the years when my mom was a single mother, people commented on her lifestyle with alarming frequency. Why wasn’t she living with her parents, they wanted to know. Wasn’t she worried that if she didn’t marry again soon, her son would grow up to be gay? Her landlord came over after her husband died, hemming and hawing, saying how sorry she was, but also that she was hoping my mom might move out to be closer to family, which would probably be better for everyone.

Well. My mother persevered. She smiled politely and bit her tongue and did what she had to do to survive those rough years.

Remind you of anyone?

Now imagine America quoting from George Knightley’s apologetic marriage proposal to Emma next November:

I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.

Like Knightley, we are lucky that she is willing to say yes.

To be sure, many of Knightley’s criticisms have been just. Handsome, clever, and rich Emma, like Hillary, is a flawed woman who is overly fond of getting her own way. She’s a snob and she has an irritating penchant for interfering in other people’s lives, sometimes to their detriment. Austen knew that she was taking a chance in creating the character and worried that readers would not warm up to her. (“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”)

Even though Emma rubs many people the wrong way, however, she also wants to do what is right. Like Hillary, she spends hours patiently listening to people talk about their problems, and, like Hillary, she is committed to helping indigent women in her community. She wouldn’t win any popularity contexts in Highbury, but the most exemplary man in the area sees her true worth and honors her.

So enough with the cheap shots. It’s fine to have policy differences with Hillary, but stop beating up on her for being a strong woman.

Further thoughts: If people are indeed linking Hillary with Lady Macbeth, it’s worth looking into the comparison. The strongest charge against Lady Macbeth (well, besides goading her husband to murder his king) is that she “unsexes” herself in order to achieve power. I suspect much of the animosity against Hillary is that she is not behaving the way a woman is supposed to behave.

Here’s Lady Macbeth’s famous speech about choosing power over femininity:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! 

Yet, like Hillary, Lady Macbeth must hide her ambitions. Her version of the “chocolate chip cookie bakeoff” with Barbara Bush is playing nice when Macbeth wants to disguise his murderous intentions towards Banquo:

Lady Macbeth:
Come on;

Gentle my lord, sleek o’er your rugged looks;
Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night.

So shall I, love; and so, I pray, be you:
Let your remembrance apply to Banquo;
Present him eminence, both with eye and tongue:
Unsafe the while, that we
Must lave our honors in these flattering streams,
And make our faces vizards [masks] to our hearts,
Disguising what they are.

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