Susan Bordo: On women and power

Feminist writer Susan Bordo wrote a book about Anne Boleyn. Then the Tudor queen's travails began to chime with those of Hillary Clinton


Four years ago, Susan Bordo set out to rescue the reputation of Anne Boleyn, chipping away at the “sedimented mythology” of the Tudor queen which had been “turned into ‘history’ by decades of repetition”.

But as the American cultural historian and feminist scholar wrote The Creation of Anne Boleyn, a contemporary example of another maligned woman kept rumbling around in her mind: Hillary Clinton.

For a writer who has long been both intrigued and appalled by what she terms “the increasing obliviousness or irrelevance of fact … [and its] replacement by an interesting narrative or imagery”, the 2016 US presidential election proved a tempting subject.

Her resulting new book, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, throws up questions — about America’s political culture, the portrayal of powerful women, and what Bordo calls “the evolution of the fact-free universe” — which continue to reverberate.

As a strong supporter of Clinton, Bordo, keenly aware of the “fragility of feminist accomplishments”, found the book painful to write. Early drafts were “way too full of expressions of my own grief, upset and anger”. Nonetheless, Bordo was determined that what she believes to be the true story of why the highly intelligent, accomplished and qualified former US Secretary of State was defeated by Donald Trump should be told “if this doesn’t sound too presumptuous, for history.”

While Clinton entered the election with her own particular baggage, Bordo believes her defeat points to a wider challenge facing the next woman who tries to shatter the highest glass ceiling in American politics: “I think that we have a enormous fetish within the United States for femininity and it creates a problem for any woman who wants to aspire to higher office because, of course, in order to be successful, you have to abandon some of what we traditionally associate with femininity. You have to develop a certain kind of competence, confidence and tough skin and you have to project authority and power. But then if one is seen as all those things, it disturbs our expectations of what a woman is supposed to be like.”

Bordo suspects that even some successful conservative European politicians might have struggled in the US: “I don’t think we’d ever elect a Thatcher or a May or an Angela Merkel, no matter what their ideology, because we would see them as to ‘man-ish’ … A woman like Thatcher would have been continually derided in the press for being too much like a man.” She is irritated by efforts to compare May’s general election fiasco with Clinton’s defeat last November. Media suggestions that May is “the new Hillary Clinton”— robotic, uninspiring and charmless, as one pundit put it— reek of sexism. “Apparently, the vast differences between a conservative and a liberal pale beside — inaccurate, with respect to Clinton — assessments of ‘style,’ criteria that would never be applied to male candidates,” argues Bordo.

Bordo does not see the same emphasis on femininity in either British or the traditional Jewish culture from which she hails. Although these cultures may not be “premised on male-female equality”, there is place within them for “the strong, assertive, dominant woman — even if that’s only in the kitchen. She’s granted a certain kind of power in her domain and is not seen as unattractive.”

For Bordo, whose 1993 book Unbearable Weight was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, there was initially something exhilarating about the race for the Democratic nomination. Having experienced many of the cultural battles of the “gender wars” firsthand, she felt an identification with Clinton “deeper and longer than any current headlines.” At the same time, Bordo and Bernie Sanders share the same immigrant, working-class Jewish roots. She thought it was “wonderful to see a Jew, even though he didn’t make very much of it, actually being considered as a possible candidate for president.” Of a similar age, having participated in many of the same political movements in their youth, she says, “I was very familiar with the Bernie kind of guy.”

Nonetheless, her initial pride in Sanders turned to deep anger. It was less his seeming lack of interest in women’s issues, as the manner in which he ran against Clinton which appalled her. By branding his opponent part of the establishment — a charge that was particularly corrosive among the younger generation — depicting her as a tool of Wall Street, and denying that she was a real progressive, Bordo believes Sanders helped lay the groundwork for Trump’s victory. Too many of his supporters simply came to the conclusion that Clinton was no better than the Republican candidate.

Sanders, Bordo charges, “never took responsibility” for the damage his campaign thus did to her in November.

Like Sanders, many of the villains of Bordo’s telling of the election remain on the stage. James Comey, the former FBI Director, who fatally wounded Clinton’s campaign 10 days before the election by reopening the investigation into her emails, may now have the fate of Trump’s presidency in his hands. Bordo views Comey as the most mysterious of all the characters in her book. She views him as having acted on an “exaggerated boy scout complex”, and having an “infatuation with his own integrity” as well as a fierce allegiance to the FBI at all costs. She cites his recent appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, in which Comey refused to acknowledge any mistakes in handling the Clinton email case, while laying a trail for those now investigating Trump. “Right now, he is the hero of the moment, as that concern to protect the FBI has exposed Trump’s abuse of power,” she suggests. But, she cautions, there was, though, nothing “heroic” in Comey’s treatment of Clinton “when worry over how things might play out for the FBI over-rode an interest in fairness or protocol”.

Then, of course, there is Trump himself. She thinks the question as to how he will respond to the swirl of Russia-related allegations surrounding his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, “gets to the heart” of the president’s character. It is “the place where self-interest and narcissism, which are so highly developed in him, comes up against family ties and loyalty.”

Bordo finds the notion that Trump would be “so self-interested and so motivated by his own reputation, his own needs, his own image to dump a family member … a little chilling.”

Just as writing about Anne Boleyn led Bordo’s mind to Clinton, so the drama of the Trump presidency now takes her once again to parallels with 16th century England. She is considering writing about Anne’s husband, Henry VIII. Psychologically, she argues, the president and the Tudor monarch, have certain similarities. The warmth and charm Trump supposedly lavishes on those of whom he approves reminds her of the way contemporaries spoke of Henry bathing friends “in the sunlight of his affection”. However, she believes that Thomas More’s description of the King as akin to “playing with a young tiger” also applies to the president: “You’re either in his world or not in his world. And if you’re not in his world, goodbye.” Viewing the White House with its in-fighting and competing factions, she concludes, “it is as though, we have recreated a contemporary version of a Tudor court which is fascinating and horribly frightening because we’re in the year 2017.”

The Destruction of Hillary Clinton is published by Melville House.

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