Political Hay

Why Hillary Talks Like Bill

And how the feminization of politics Newterized Nancy Pelosi.

By and 5.7.07

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Standing at the pulpit of a Selma, Alabama black church, Hillary Clinton delivered her speech casually lapsing into the accent of a Southern good-ole-boy. Standing in front of Al Sharpton's National Action Network the other day in the middle of New York City, she did it again. Criticized, she semi-jokingly defended herself by saying America needs a "multilingual" president.

But was she speaking in just a Southern accent? Or was she really speaking in another language altogether -- the language of men? Not to be impolite, but if that were really her intention, why is the first serious female presidential candidate in American history pretending to be somebody the entire world knows she is decidedly not -- her husband?

The not-so-politically correct answer is that beyond her actual words, the presidential candidate raised in the Chicago suburbs was sending the not-so-subtle signal that she was really just another Southern Bubba. To wit: just one of the - gasp! - guys!

But why would Hillary want to be another Bill? For that matter, the same question arose when Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House and mischievously flexed her bicep to indicate to her mostly-male colleagues that she too was just one of the guys. Again the question: why would Nancy want to be just another Newt? Particularly since both women have burst through the glass dome. The enduring if politically charged reality, it seems, is that women have no choice but to fit into this testosterone-ruled social group.

Fortunately, the pain of this cognitive dissonance is not too hard a pill to swallow because women tend to be conformists. Indeed, it's around the age of 12, when their brain becomes flooded with estrogen, that girls become more concerned with social acceptance than boys. In either the Senate or House chamber where men outnumber women, if there's anything a female instinctively knows it is that she should avoid being ostracized by her political tribe.

But being voted against by constituents is a more pressing concern that has women politicians around the globe juggling behavior options. Were Americans more approving of Hillary Clinton as health-care policy expert - or as apron-clad cookie baker? How does a woman dressed in pink for a press conference on her finances become known by her staff as The Warrior? Can she explain away her vote for the Iraq war with a soft and tender flip-flop?

Even the French are struggling. Upon learning that Segolene Royal had just won her Socialist party's presidential nomination, defeated candidate Laurent Fabius telegraphed a male mind by querying who's going to mind the children?

Women are biologically predisposed to behave in a certain way with the aid of hormones like estrogen, which has dictated their softer physical characteristics throughout our prehistoric lineage. Hope as anyone may for uniform conduct, the incontestable fact is that our stone-age biology still holds sway against the cultural tides of modern society, manifesting as behavior we still anticipate: women as care-givers, provider of bosom, as the more empathetic, the more socially connected of the two genders. And this also happens to have biochemical proof.

When women chit-chat, their oxytocin level -- a feel-good hormone that elicits feelings of trust, bonding and love -- rises, according to a recent study by Dr. Shelley Taylor, psychology professor at UCLA. This means they experience pleasure and feel connected with others. And it lines up with Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan's work on the difference in moral thinking between the sexes that concludes men generally rely more on a universal set of rules that determine obligations and rights (justice-based reasoning), whereas women are oriented towards care-based reasoning that focuses attention on the needs of others.

That former Democratic vice-presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro recently invoked Gilligan's work while asserting that women are more apt to negotiate, listen, and persuade, is telling. But this is not the sort of performance we expect -- or even demand -- from our male leaders. Projecting manly swagger is crucial for a man and if he doesn't deliver (a soft-spoken, cardigan-clad Jimmy Carter talking to Americans) he will be quickly challenged by a more overtly Alpha-male (Ted Kennedy in the Democratic primaries and Ronald Reagan in the general election). There is a reason the swaggering George W. Bush defeated both Al Gore and John Kerry that has nothing to do with their platform. It is the same reason Margaret Thatcher, according to one linguistic expert, "was encouraged by her advisors to speak more like men…to get rid of the high pitch of her voice and to speak more slowly." It is also the same reason that a recent study written by Camelia Suleiman of Florida International University and Daniel O'Connor of Georgetown University compared separate interviews of Bill and Hillary Clinton and concluded that it is reasonable to expect "Hillary Clinton will speak similarly to Bill Clinton or other politicians because she is in a position of power…"

Testosterone not only shapes masculine characteristics and aggressive behavior but also blocks the release of oxytocin. This is why men -- think Dick Cheney -- get nothing out of chit-chatting. Their biology is harnessed instead to assert dominance, power and other status symbols, something to bear in mind when you watch Al Sharpton take verbal potshots at the newly-arrived-on-the-scene Barrack Obama. Political psychology research consistently shows men tend to be the more authoritarian and socially dominant creatures, according to Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist, University of New Mexico. Homo politicus merely shed his hairy suit for fine wool threads and savannah for the floor of the House and Senate. And the campaign trail. Chest-pounding and the fiery clubs of hunting-and-gathering have morphed into podium-pounding, filibustering, and the aggressive-red ties of legislative fights. Particularly for prized pork-barrel items. The cantankerous bluster out of Senator Ted Stevens had no other purpose than to assert dominance (over fellow Appropriations tribe members) in order to snatch the now infamous Bridge to Nowhere (for constituents).

It's no wonder political systems were made for and by men. Naturally, as Hillary Clinton has discovered in her life, they are also a perfect arena of status-display for sexual selection: a foolproof means of attracting the opposite sex. Females, in turn, are biologically programmed to be impressed by the antics in this arena for one reason: to ensure good genes for their offspring. Yes, deep down, that's what Monica really wanted from Bill.

Women are generally less motivated to display status or seek public acknowledgement because their value as a sexual mate is determined by things like physical attractiveness. So why do Hillary and Nancy and a growing corps of women in both parties throw themselves into this head-butting good 'ole boy network whose currency, known to evolutionary psychologists as in-group favoritism, is horse-trading and mutual back-scratching? Tactics that certainly don't mirror the consensual decision-making approach women use.

There's no need to jump through these hoops if you happen to be a female already endowed with the more masculine tendency to use strong-arm tactics. This is precisely the sort of status-seeking female some see in Hillary. Their goals focus more on self than others (a frequent charge from Hillary critics) and deviate from Gilligan's care-based moral reasoning to the more dominant, rules-based approach. Females voting for military action (like the Iraq War) rather than devoting money almost exclusively to social programs like HeadStart or Medicare tend to signal a priority for the preservation of self in office. Their vote is also an atavistic bellicose link to the prehistoric male coalitions who fought over prey, females or simply territory, and it stands in stark contrast with the generally more peace-advocating female.

Few political observers in either party believe Hillary's interest in the welfare of others is genuine empathic altruism where the joy of giving to others is in seeing them receive. Hollywood left-wing heavyweight David Geffen blurted to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd that she can "lie with such ease it's troubling." Fairly or unfairly Hillary tends to be viewed through a lens that sees a raw reciprocal altruism based on the expectation of a reciprocal favor: a vote from a constituent, funds from the political party.

Or the chance to be the first female President of the United States.

The compass of feminine politics is spinning so fast it's hard to see where the needle will ultimately point. Or whether it will continue to point in different directions.

Of one thing you can be sure. When Hillary announces she will target the women's vote by stressing health care and education issues -- at the same time she votes for yet another Iraq war supplemental that will fund the troops (yet insist on "redeploying" them)-- she is not just playing politics but the game of evolutionary biology as well.

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About the Author

Marilia Duffles is a contributor to the Financial Times and the Economist. She has also written for the Globo, Brazil's leading newspaper.

About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.