Oh, the Humanities! #6

Adriene Goodwin

Let’s get right to the point: we, as a society, have a problem with ambitious women. Specifically, we have a problem with praising women who are ambitious in the same manner that we praise ambitious men. The trait takes on very different adjectives depending on gender. Ambitious men are leaders. Ambitious women are Lady Macbeth.

The comparison between William Shakespeare’s most notorious leading lady and Hillary Clinton has existed since Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign of 1992. David Wattenberg of the conservative U.S. monthly magazine, The American Spectator, published the article (some might call it a diatribe) titled “The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock.” Wattenberg pulls no punches in his nine pages and his allusion to Shakespeare is presented as such: “The image of Mrs. Clinton that has crystallized in the public consciousness is, of course, that of Lady Macbeth: consuming ambition, inflexibility of purpose, domination of a pliable husband, and an unsettling lack of tender human feeling, along with the affluent feminist’s contempt for traditional female roles.”

Lady Macbeth was simply a facade used to hide what Wattenberg had a problem with: a woman who was both professionally and politically ambitious, and who did not fit the conservative concept of a wife. However, what is truly disheartening is how one man’s opinion became the vessel by which the mainstream media analyzed Clinton and her character.

As noted last week, Katie Couric made reference to the Lady Macbeth comparison in a 1993 NBC interview with Clinton (fun fact: the interview can be found in its entirety on YouTube). Introduced as a “new kind of First Lady,” Clinton personified much of what the women’s liberation movement and progressives hoped society could one day achieve: she personified the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. She embodied this within a marriage that looked more like a partnership in the eyes of America. And yet, apparently a heteronormative partnership was still a problem in the 90s, a decade that brought both progress and pushback for women.

“She is no shrinking violet,” noted Couric in that same interview. Lady Macbeth herself infamously said, “Look like the innocent flower,/But be the serpent under it.” Both descriptions equate women with flowers lacking in fragility. Rather than being read as testaments of strength, these descriptions instead evoke scrutiny.

Within five minutes of their interview, Couric referenced Lady Macbeth three times and drove on the comparison. Clinton eventually responded to how divisive a “lightning rod” she’s perceived as, stating: “I think women’s roles right now are lightning rods every day in so many different ways . . . In places all over America, people are struggling to define what it means to be a woman, a mother, a wife— all of the different roles we play.”

Like Lady Macbeth, Clinton was partner, advisor and consort to her husband. Like Lady Macbeth, she was oftentimes viewed as a more powerful and intelligent force than her husband. And like Lady Macbeth, this made many people uncomfortable.

Unlike Lady Macbeth, however, Clinton has her own political resume and achievements independent of her husband. And unlike Lady Macbeth, Clinton is a real woman of caliber, with the qualifications necessary for the presidency.

It’s remarkable to watch Clinton in these older interviews; one can witness the evolution from candid, unfettered responses to the more polished, practiced politician we see today. This progression is very important. It’s important because we can pinpoint the “I don’t trust her” sentiment so early in her introduction to the spotlight. It used to stem from the fact that she was a career woman who refused to drop her maiden name and rightly declared she had other things to do besides bake cookies.

Once it was realized that such scrutiny was rooted in misogyny and sexism, the sentiment seemingly took on another form. And another form. And another. Until finally we’ve reached a point today where even millennials—a generation more familiar with Rugrats adventures than HRC’s own political career while her husband was in office— feel they can’t trust her, yet most of the time they cannot articulate why. A narrative of distrust has manifested into a monster of paranoia. We have created phantoms of Macbeth that haunt our psyches and blind us from the real conflict at hand.

Last Monday was the first presidential debate. Minutes after the debate ended, NBC’s moderator Chuck Todd criticized Clinton for being “over prepared.” Clinton has been chastised for being too honest and too real in the past, and now she is dismissed for putting to much effort into research and practice. We have a problem with ambitious women. This is a woman who tries to absorb constructive criticism and improve her platform and policies. Her ambition is an asset that continues to help her move forward. If there is one line from Lady Macbeth that Clinton might agree with, it’s this: “screw your courage to the sticking-place,/And we’ll not fail.” Bravery is not a fault, it is a virtue. Be brave, be steadfast and stick it to them hard.