To the world, she's a villain; to me, she's fun

Hillary Clinton has been vilified for five years - so far. Why? Maybe we just can't cope with complex women

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Last night Hillary Rodham Clinton made a speech to the Democratic Convention in Chicago, in support of her husband's nomination for the US presidency. Not, as it happens, that he needs support; his nomination is assured; instead, her speech has been described as a "rehabilitation" exercise.

From what does she need rehabilitating? From a five-year campaign of unparalleled vilification: not just from the Republican opposition, but from pundits, journalists and gossip-mongers worldwide. For just about everything.

First, she was a dour intellectual feminist; then she was a manipulative, power-hungry woman driving a charming but weak man towards the White House; then she was a vain woman willing to remake herself to fit media images (and even pretend she could cook chocolate chip cookies!); then she was a political failure whose health plan was an obvious disaster; then she was probably a criminal - or at least a sharp operator, called as a witness at seedy financial trials; now, more often, she is sidelined - a neurotic, paranoid nutcase sacking staff and holding seances - at best a liability and at worst a danger.

It's very strange, really. What exactly has Ms Clinton done that is so awful? She has worked hard, stood by her man, and struggled to find a public image acceptable to both herself and the world, but ...

Tiresomely for her, Hillary Clinton is, perhaps above all, very intelligent: quite simply, mass marketing hates clever women - unless they confine themselves to universities and eccentricities. They are meant to "pay" for being brainy by being both ugly and emotionally unfulfilled.

She is serious - when she speaks or writes about the things she cares about, such as families, she does not attempt to trigger traditionalists' terrors, but to look at what children need to flourish. Her book, It Takes a Village (to raise a child), really does try to negotiate a new relationship between community and individuals within a complex society. Instantly, she has made herself a hostage to fortune, once again. Bob Dole, the Republican challenger, has taken up the title, responding: "It takes a family to raise a child," adding that her book is really a justification of big- government socialism. But the social condition of children is a serious issue in the United States, and even in the political cauldron of an election year she takes it seriously.

She is effective. The health plan may not have been successful, though God knows what healthcare plan would have been, but her education programme in Arkansas and her child advocacy work have been accepted as innovative and practical.

Ms Clinton is not just clever, thoughtful and effective; she is also a feminist, a wife, a political activist, a mother and a career lawyer. The real fact is that we have not yet learnt to deal with complex women. Recent studies have shown that all women politicians get less favourable media coverage than their male counterparts. In some ways it is even harder for Hillary Clinton, because she is not only a political figure but also the wife of a head of state, who must harmonise her views with his agenda.

One of her problems is unquestionably her age. She is too young to be "momma of the nation" and not young enough to be the sweetheart of the nation, as Princess Diana says she wants to be. The media circus into which she is inevitably thrust would probably be delighted with either stereotype, but it does not seem to be able to cope with anything more subtle. There are quite a number of acceptable roles for women - suffering mother, beautiful queen, virtuous lady, for example - but if you are a woman with high visibility who cannot easily be slotted into any of those niches, you will be villainised; witch, bitch, hysteric, or whore.

There is something personal in this defence: I like Hillary Clinton. She is fun, (something never mentioned, perhaps she can't be any more, which would be sad). I stayed with her once in Arkansas, during the years that the now President was out of office. Despite her hectic schedule, we enjoyed long late-night conversations. I remember one, a mixture of hilarity and real interest, on the relationship of religion to morality and civic life. She dredged out of her address book valuable contacts for my research on Christian feminism in the US, and rang her friends to find more. She was easy to be with, thoughtful, interesting and supportive.

Even if I had never met her, I think I would still be a grateful fan. Women like me need a few more women like her: high-profile women who can managed the juggling trick - careers, children, a partnership, and a truly chic pink suit at the Peking Women's Conference. Women who want to be good and clever.

I hope the Democratic Convention delegates, more than half of whom are women and 40 per cent of whom define themselves as "liberal", recognise how much they, and contemporary women more widely, owe to Hillary Clinton. The risky and obviously painful course she has been made to run has helped us. The media attack on her has shown us how far we still have to go to achieve anything resembling equality in representation. If the convention expresses the real enthusiasm that the Republicans generated for Elizabeth Dole - another career wife, after all - they will be cheering for themselves and their daughters, for some sort of optimism in the possibility of women being allowed some public space without giving up all personal dignity.

And anyway Hillary Clinton has got a hellish few months ahead of her. I wish her good luck.

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