One of the criticisms that has been aimed at Sen. Clinton for many years now is that she is ambitious. We hear it from talking heads, from Republicans, and now–from Democrats. Yes, she is. So is Sen. Obama, whose rise from freshman Senator to presidential candidate was a carefully and brilliantly orchestrated phenomenon. Obama’s intelligence and poise are obvious, but intelligence and poise are not enough to launch someone into political stardom. Product branding is essential, and Obama has been the object of a serious branding campaign since the day he entered the Senate.
What is also glaringly obvious is the double standard that is applied to men and women. Obama’s ambition makes him a leader; Clinton’s makes her untrustworthy. Obama’s ambition makes him a star; Clinton’s ambition makes her desperate. The news media writes and talks about Obama’s ambition in a fairly objective way, balancing his brand-name production with his personal and professional assets. When it comes to Clinton, however, there is the obligatory mention of her husband, but never the obligatory mention of her own record of achievement. Instead, we hear that a candidate named “The Clintons” has done or said this or that. I am not suggesting that we forget who Sen. Clinton’s husband is, but it is very hard to imagine this constant use of the term “The Clintons,” when referring to the candidate, if the candidate were a man whose wife had held high office (maybe now, Sen. Clinton will finally regret that she caved in to pressure in Arkansas and changed her name).
Though our culture is (somewhat) past saying that a woman with ambition is “trying to be a man,” the message is nevertheless the same. Goal orientation and the determination and action that it takes to reach a goal comprise a male virtue, but render a woman “unfeminine.” There is plenty about each candidate to criticize, but since the ambition factor appears to be equal, it’s time to stop treating the word as an insult when using it to refer to Clinton.