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Gary Younge
All Clinton has to do is prove her femininity. And her hypermachismo

Herein lie the two key and contradictory challenges for Hillary Clinton in her bid for the White House. On the one hand, she must not just be a woman but perform femininity. The fact that she is female is part of her appeal - particularly to women. Young girls at her rallies wear badges saying "I can be president". In her stump speech, she often cites a 95-year-old woman who told her: "I was born before women could vote, and I'm gonna live long enough to see a woman in the White House." "And I told her, 'Amen! Amen!'" responds Clinton. Finding a way to leverage this support is central to her electoral strategy.

On the other hand, she must, more than any other candidate, assert her toughness, resolve and predisposition to lead troops into battle - attributes traditionally associated with masculinity. In this regard, being a woman is seen as a drawback - particularly by men - and she must find a way to underplay her femininity so that it does not become an electoral liability. "I stand ... with every American who needs a fighter in their corner," she said at a rally in Iowa over the weekend.

Indeed, when it comes to presidential qualities it seems that American political culture veers not simply towards the masculine, but the hypermacho. George Bush Sr was devastated by a Newsweek cover that lambasted the "wimp factor" in his presidency and repeated the word several times. In 2000, one Democratic strategist told the New York Times that John Kerry's failure to fight back against the Swift boat ads that questioned his Vietnam war record fed a perception, particularly among married women, that he would not fight for them and their children. George Bush Jr likes to be filmed clearing brush; the California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger derides "girlie-men".

Meanwhile, with a woman and a black man in the running, those who traditionally abhor victimhood are themselves crying foul. In June, Esquire ran a cover of John Edwards with the question: "Can a white man still be elected president?" Last month saw the publication of a book titled The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma. No lash has yet been inflicted: but the backlash has already begun.

Whatever one thinks of Clinton's record on the war (disastrous) and Iran (potentially even worse) should not detract from the fact that as a woman candidate she is forced to strike a delicate balance. Asked about her feminine authenticity this year, Clinton first neutralised the question. "I couldn't run as anything other than a woman." Then embraced it. "I'm proud to be running as a woman and I'm excited that I may be able to finally break the hardest of glass ceilings." And finally denied its relevance. "Obviously, I'm not running because I'm a woman; I trust the American people to make a decision not about me or my gender but about what is best for you and your families."

She has to make it clear that she is not simply an appendage of her husband. A female lawyer from Cincinnati told Suzanne Goldenberg in her new book, Madam President: Is America Ready to Send Hillary Clinton to the White House?: "I find it deeply annoying when people make her into some kind of feminist heroine. This is a woman who is where she is because of who she married. I don't think she would ever have got there if she hadn't been married to him, and stuck with him, and that's fine. But that's not the feminist message you want your daughters to receive, is it?"

Yet as the wife of a popular former president she knows that he is central to her appeal. "She was his right hand when he was in the presidency, and I'm sure we'll get his expertise as well as hers if she's elected," one woman told a Los Angeles Times vox pop after seeing Bill campaign for Hillary in Iowa. "It's a no-brainer."

This dilemma is neither new nor particular to Clinton. All women in the public eye face similar pressures, and that's where she has been for the last 16 years. Nor is it confined to gender. Any candidate from an under-represented group has to navigate prejudice in order to put the mainstream at its ease. Back in 1995, when it seemed as though Colin Powell might run for the presidency, he was asked to explain his appeal to white voters. "I speak reasonably well, like a white person, and I ain't that black." In 2000, vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman, who is Jewish, had to reassure a reporter that he would have a Christmas tree in the White House.

Nor, finally, is it Clinton's fault. She has had little part in framing how either the presidency or gender are understood. But it is her problem. Moreover, how she handles it will set the bar for the women who come after her.

In recent weeks, she seems to have made that problem worse. After a debate the other Democratic candidates rounded on her for her positions on Iran, the war, giving driving licences to undocumented migrants, negative poll ratings and political integrity. The tone of debate was spirited and well within the bounds of civil political discourse, with no personal attacks or particularly low blows.

Yet when it was over, Hillary's camp suggested that she had been bullied by her male challengers. Shortly after the debate, Clinton derided "the all-boy-club of presidential politics". Some of her more prominent supporters went even further. "John Edwards, specifically, as well as the press, would never attack Barack Obama for two hours the way they attacked her," said Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice-presidential candidate. "It's OK in this country to be sexist. It's certainly not OK to be racist. I think if Barack Obama had been attacked for two hours - well I don't think Barack Obama would have been attacked for two hours."

This is precisely the kind of cynicism that degrades the struggle for equality and gives identity politics a bad name. One need not descend into a juvenile trade-off between race and gender to see the self-serving disingenuity at play. As Obama retorted: "It doesn't make sense for her, after having run [as a tough national figure] for eight months, the first time that people start challenging her point of view, that suddenly she backs off and says: 'Don't pick on me.'"

Sensing a backlash, the Clinton camp held its fire. "I don't think they're piling on because I'm a woman," said Clinton. "I think they're piling on because I'm winning." And then she shot herself in the foot. "I anticipate it's going to get even hotter," she said. "And if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen - and I'm very much at home in the kitchen."

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