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Maureen Dowd's terrible Hillary Clinton column shows the impossible demands all women face

Hillary Clinton in 2014, being neither "macho" nor "docile."
Hillary Clinton in 2014, being neither "macho" nor "docile."
Bryan Thomas/Getty Images)

Like most other women I know, for my entire professional life I have heard an annoying, critical voice in my head telling me that I was being a woman wrong.

Sometimes it tells me I am entirely too feminine: that my clothes are too girly, that I am too quiet and obliging in meetings, too willing to be deferential.

And sometimes it tells me I am failing to meet minimum required levels of girliness: that I ought to take more care with my appearance, be less insistent on having my own way, be more careful about interrupting colleagues to say what I have to say. The voice is impossible to satisfy; there is no pleasing it. I've just learned to live with the constant, undermining sense that there is some correct way of doing things that keeps eluding me.

The problem, of course, is that women face a dilemma: being ambitious and successful are not characteristics that are traditionally associated with femininity, but challenging those traditional gender roles often provokes a backlash. Either way, there's a risk that it will be a barrier to success.

We, as women, often find ourselves stuck between two bad options: embracing traditional gender roles and risking being perceived as lacking leadership skills and strength, or embracing ambition and power and risking making people uncomfortable and hostile. That annoying voice in my head is reminding me to navigate between those two unpleasant options. It feels mandatory, but also often impossible. And it's exhausting.

Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign offers a glimpse of a world in which we will no longer have to do that. Not because she will be such a shining example of female power that she'll singlehandedly shatter restrictive gender norms and brush their dust off her power-suited shoulders — although that sure would be nice! — but because her campaign is going to inspire such ridiculously gendered demands and critiques that we'll all be reminded of how silly they are, and that if we're going to succeed it will be in spite of those inner critical voices, not because of them.

Once those voices are out of our heads and onto TV screens and newspaper pages, it will be easier to expose their absurdity and give ourselves a break.

This weekend, for instance, the New York Times's Maureen Dowd appears to have let her inner femininity critic ghostwrite her column, to genuinely peculiar effect. Dowd's latest piece is devoted to telling Hillary Clinton that she has spent her life being a woman wrong, and that she will never be president unless she can manage exactly the correct amount of femininity on the campaign trail.

In Dowd's telling, Hillary lost in 2008 because she "campaigned like a man," and voted for the Iraq War in 2002 because she wanted to "project swagger," only to lose to a "feminized" Barack Obama.

But now, Dowd complains, Hillary has overcorrected:

She has zagged too far in the opposite direction, presenting herself as a sweet, docile granny in a Scooby van, so self-effacing she made only a cameo in her own gauzy, demographically pandering presidential campaign announcement video and mentioned no issues on her campaign’s website.

In her Iowa round tables, she acted as though she were following dating tips from 1950s advice columnists to women trying to "trap" a husband: listen a lot, nod a lot, widen your eyes, and act fascinated with everything that’s said. A clip posted on her campaign Facebook page showed her sharing the story of the day her granddaughter was born with some Iowa voters, basking in estrogen as she emoted about the need for longer paid leave for new mothers: "You’ve got to bond with your baby. You’ve got to learn how to take care of the baby."

This, apparently, is entirely too much femininity. Dowd thinks Hillary needs to find a "more authentic way to campaign as a woman — something between an overdose of testosterone and an overdose of estrogen, something between Macho Man and Humble Granny."

This is so ridiculous that I can't help but find it a relief. Hillary isn't "macho," as Dowd puts it; in fact, she is genuinely more hawkish than the rest of the Democratic Party. And she's no "docile granny," in Iowa or elsewhere — since when is paid leave for working women, which this country does not currently guarantee, some sort of softball issue?

And I can't do anything but laugh when Dowd suggests that Hillary should use the bossy and ambitious caricature of herself that Amy Poehler played on Saturday Night Live in 2008 as guidance for how to escape the bossy and ambitious caricature of herself that Kate McKinnon plays on SNL now.

This system is rigged. There is no way to win. Especially for those of us who have never been spoofed on late-night television at all — where do we turn for guidance? But what a relief to see that absurd, impossible standard shriveling in the sunlight.

So now when I hear that annoying voice telling me I should have worn bigger earrings or spoken with a bigger voice, I have a handy retort. "What are you worried about? That I might end up like Hillary Clinton?"

Because if she's what failure looks like, sign me up.

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