MAXWELL:  Poll of first ladies say more about Americans’ view of women

8/5/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A new Pew Research Center poll that demonstrates high approval ratings for first lady Laura Bush has also raised some unsettling questions by way of comparison. As poll editor Carroll Doherty puts it: “Laura Bush has got very wide acceptance . . . she’s already the anti-Hillary.”

Anti-Hillary? Exactly what is Doherty saying? That something is or was wrong with first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton? That Mrs. Bush, as the new first lady, is an improvement over her predecessor?

When pollsters asked people to describe Mrs. Clinton with one word, they got responses such as “good,” “intelligent,” “smart,” “domineering,” “bossy,” “aggressive.” For Mrs. Bush: “good,” “nice,” “intelligent,” “quiet,” “classy,” “lady.” Although Mrs. Clinton and her successor share some descriptions, those that are different depict the women as polar opposites _ Mrs. Bush being the “anti-Hillary.”

I must point out right now that these one-word descriptions and the other results of the poll say more about the nation’s opinion of women in general than they do about Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Clinton as individuals. The picture I see is an uncharitable one _ a neo-Freudian abstract of tell-tale signs of political affiliation, perceptions of the female as a marginalized person, race, class, privilege, power.

Here are the Pew numbers, digested from interviews of 1,003 adults between July 2 to July 12. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

After a little more than six months in the White House, Mrs. Bush is viewed favorably by a full 64 percent of Americans. Mrs. Clinton, a New York senator whose manner is serious, earns 60 percent favorability.

Among men, 62 percent love Mrs. Bush. By contrast, only 51 percent care for Mrs. Clinton, even though she is a well-respected attorney and an elected official representing the tough Empire State.

How do women rate these two first wives? Not surprising to me, more women than men favor Mrs. Clinton. According to Pew, 66 percent of women praise the current first lady, while 69 percent see Mrs. Clinton in a positive light.

Opinions of the first ladies based on party affiliation is a no-brainer: 87 percent of Republicans think Mrs. Bush is a great first lady, while 41 percent of Democrats think so. On the other side, 54 percent of Democrats think Mrs. Bush is doing well, while 78 percent think the same of Mrs. Clinton. No surprises there.

Now, we come to race _ the nation’s rawest nerve.

African-Americans, men and women, think much less of Mrs. Bush than do their white counterparts. Only 37 percent viewed Mrs. Bush favorably. However, 84 percent cheered Mrs. Clinton. By contrast, 70 percent of whites liked Mrs. Bush, and 57 percent graded Mrs. Clinton highly.

I do not think the significance of these findings can be overstated. They mirror several important aspects of our national character, telling us who we are as a nation of diverse cultures and traditions and histories.

Every poll I have seen or read indicates that many men, especially conservatives, both black and white, resent strong, independent-minded women such as Mrs. Clinton. She has not been forgiven for her political activism during college. After marrying Bill Clinton, would-be-governor of Arkansas, she pursued a separate career as a powerful attorney. She wrote highly regarded articles for law journals, wrote the book It Takes a Village and, for a short time, wrote a syndicated weekly newspaper column.

By no means did she fade from the political scene in Washington. She headed the doomed universal healthcare effort, a project that brought the scorn of conservative Republican men, and she played a hands-on role in Oval Office intrigue.

Even more, she went up to New York and bested the then-popular, handsome Rick Lazio for a U.S. Senate seat. To add insult to injury, Mrs. Clinton always earned more money than her husband. Today, Bill Clinton does not have a real job.

In Washington, Mrs. Clinton continues to speak with authority, and many men do not like her for it. She does not take a backseat to any man. Imagine some man trying to discount her the way President George W. Bush does Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Christie Whitman, Interior Secretary Gail Norton and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. Mrs. Clinton would not be discounted without a major stink on the Beltway.

During her husband’s first campaign for president, Mrs. Clinton bewildered conservatives by announcing that she was not a cookie-baking, “stand by your man” type. For all that and more, of course, Mrs. Clinton is labeled as “bossy,” “domineering” and “aggressive.”

More women than men like Mrs. Clinton, I suspect, because she is what many women secretly want to be: Outspoken and independent.

Indeed, Mrs. Bush has been the “anti-Hillary.” Before marrying Mr. Bush, she was a public librarian with a master’s degree in library science. After marriage, she quit work, became a housewife, had children, started gardening and volunteering for the Junior League.

More men than today’s women find such a life palatable.

On the race front, African-Americans like Mrs. Clinton because they believe she, like her husband, empathizes with their plight. Although she is a daughter of privilege, Mrs. Clinton champions causes dear to blacks, which is why, again, a whopping 84 percent love her. To most blacks, Mrs. Bush is just like her husband _ a conservative Republican who cares little if at all about their problems.

The Pew poll _ comparing the former and current first ladies _ tells us more about American values and the great divisions among us than it does about the character of two public figures. When people say Mrs. Bush is a “lady,” what are they saying about themselves? When they call Mrs. Clinton “aggressive,” what are they saying about their expectations of women?

One woman, a Hillary basher, asked this question of me: “What kind of woman would keep her maiden name after she marries? Hillary Rodham Clinton. Why the “Rodham’?”