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Hillary Pilloried

April 13, 1992



TO help Bill Clinton regain the Arkansas governor's mansion in 1982 after he was voted out two years earlier, Hillary Rodham yielded to public pressure and took her husband's last name. Is it a similar traditionalism as to women's roles that has made Hillary Clinton an issue in the presidential campaign?

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Legitimate questions have been raised about Mrs. Clinton that deserve closer scrutiny. Most serious are press reports alleging conflicts of interest in her work in a top Little Rock law firm. The Clintons have denied any improprieties connected with Mrs. Clinton's law practice.

But something deeper than customary political scandal mongering is swirling around Hillary Clinton, something that may have elements of an ugly antifeminist backlash.

Hillary Clinton is a new phenomenon in American presidential politics - a full-time career woman who is an important partner and adviser to a presidential candidate, not just in a marital capacity but also in a professional capacity. Besides being a successful attorney, Mrs. Clinton has been an important advocate for education reform and changes in the legal treatment of children.

While many other candidates have had wives with work experience, the Clintons are the first truly two-career couple whose home could be the White House.

Of course, intelligent and influential women have had the run of the Oval Office before, like Edith Wilson (who virtually ran the government during Woodrow Wilson's illness), Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosalynn Carter. Both Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush are known to have influenced their husband's administrations. Yet all these first ladies worked quietly behind the scenes or, when in public, in conformity with traditional women's roles. In a Clinton administration, Hillary would almost certainly occupy a mo re formal, up-front policymaking position (as Marilyn Quayle probably would in any future Quayle White House).

It's perhaps not surprising that some public disquiet, even resistance, may be greeting a new type of career woman in the presidential campaign - one increasingly common in business and the professions but still rare in national politics. The nation is comfortable with the traditional image of First Helpmeet (embodied so graciously by Barbara Bush). But to the extent that gender stereotypes contribute to misgivings about Hillary Clinton, the public needs to open its thinking.

Mrs. Clinton has put her foot in her mouth, as with her remark: "I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies, and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession." She apologized, saying she respects women who choose to be full-time mothers, homemakers, and workers for charitable causes. We hope Mrs. Clinton (herself a mother) genuinely rejects whatever elitism such remarks might suggest.

At the same time, Mrs. Clinton is pioneering in an area where the rules are still being made up, and, like her husband, she is performing under great pressure. Some allowances must be made.

Because Hillary Clinton will be a prominent member of any Clinton administration, the public properly may judge her character, ability, and views. But such judgments should be made on individual merit, not because she is a smart, outspoken, ambitious woman in a world that has long prized such qualities in male office-seekers.