Hillary Clinton is a witch who eats babies. She is a modern-day Medusa who turns men to stone. She is a DemocRAT, with a rodent's body and long tail. She is a mad cow, spreading disease across the country. Hey guys, life's a bitch, so why vote for one? No, I haven't taken leave of my senses: I am simply repeating some of the most vitriolic attacks on a woman who has dared to run for the White House, prompting an outpouring of misogyny on a scale that brings to mind medieval witch-hunts. The amazing thing is not that Clinton is trailing Barack Obama, but the fact that she's doing so well.
Last weekend she won Pennsylvania, despite her campaign being outspent three-to-one. She has been written off countless times since January, when commentators gleefully – and wrongly – declared that Clinton had been defeated in the New Hampshire primary; one conservative pundit confidently said: "The witch is dead, and life is going to change." Three months later, Clinton is still in the race, but I sometimes wonder how she manages to get up every morning. I'm not a natural supporter, but the degree of vilification she has been subjected to reminds me of the pathological misogyny of the notorious witch-finders' manual, Malleus Maleficarum.
Let's start with the T-shirts, mugs and stickers at the online "Hillary vilification shop" where images of her as a rat, a mad cow and Medusa are on sale. "Hillary will eat our babies," one message proclaims. "Pillory Hillary 2008," says another, next to an image of Clinton in the stocks. Most sinister of all is "Wanna See Hillary Run? ... Throw Rocks At Her", echoing the barbaric practice of stoning women to death. Take to the airwaves in America, and more bile pours out; the right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh, whose show has 14.5 million listeners, has identified something he called a "testicle lockbox" as an attribute of the New York senator. Is this related, I wonder, to a vagina dentata? Perhaps that's what Clifford May, a former Republican National Committee spokesman, had in mind when he called on Clinton to define herself as "a Vaginal-American".
What are they so afraid of? "There's just something about her that feels castrating, overbearing and scary," declared MSNBC host Tucker Carlson. Scary but pathetic, says Limbaugh: "Will America want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?" Clinton is 60, 11 years younger than the Republican candidate John McCain, but ageing "makes men look more authoritative, accomplished and distinguished", according to Limbaugh.
McCain, to his shame, has not remained aloof from the pillorying of Clinton, failing to rebuke a female supporter in South Carolina who asked: "How do we beat the bitch?" Visibly taken aback, McCain laughed and thought for a few seconds. "That's an excellent question," he said. In the following week, the "How do we beat the bitch?" incident was viewed almost a million times on YouTube.
"This is sociopathic woman-hating," the feminist author Robin Morgan. "If it were about Jews, we would recognise it instantly as anti-Semitic propaganda; if about race, as KKK poison. Where is our sense of outrage – as citizens, voters, Americans?" In fact, Clinton does have people defending her, including Elton John. The singer recently opened a fundraising concert for Clinton in New York and said he was "amazed by the misogynistic attitudes of some people in this country". So are some ordinary voters, including an Obama supporter who expressed his frustration with a Facebook group entitled "Hillary Clinton: Stop Running for President and Make Me a Sandwich". He wrote on his blog: "The last time I checked, it had over 44,000 members, and at least once a week since it was started I receive a request from a Christian asking me to join this group."
The title of the group is revealing because its equivalent – "Barack Obama: Stop Running for President and Clean My Pool"– doesn't exist. It would cause outrage. So why, when racial abuse is rightly taboo, is it acceptable to abuse a woman on the grounds of her gender? Why is it all right to use words such as "witch" and "bitch" about a female politician?
Of course, it may be that racism has gone underground, and that doubts about a black presidential candidate are emerging in voting patterns. But this year's race for the White House has undeniably exposed the previously unimaginable degree of misogyny at the heart of American culture. Whoever wins in November, the 2008 election will go down in history as the occasion when lobbyists, pundits and bloggers staged a very public mugging of Hillary Clinton.
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