Hillary Rodham Clinton, now referred to by the press as "Mrs. Clinton," came to Washington as a strong, capable, high-minded individual with myriad goals and agendas for making our country a more humane place. In the space of six years, she has gone from being a role model to a victim, the apotheosis of what we warn our daughters not to be. She is the classic abused wife whose husband comes to her for the nth time, hat in hand, apologizing for his infidelities and begging forgiveness.
Watching the First Lady take such a fall is a sad experience. After all, she was the woman on whom many pinned their hopes, the one who would convince Americans that women could use their brains in the political arena to effect wide, sweeping changes that would make life better. Under her guidance we were to become a huge, caring community.
Most women looked to her as a role model, someone whose very presence spelled optimism. Now she has shown us, and Chelsea, how fragile that persona really was. Her lesson: No matter how high up a woman goes, she's just putty in a man's hands. She will suffer ignominiously in the name of love.
Some might say she is exhibiting a prodigious amount of strength. Perhaps Hillary Rodham Clinton eschews the distinction of being the First Lady who separated or divorced in the White House. No one can blame her, but by standing by her man, she undoubtedly sets feminism back.
Could it be she is staying for Chelsea's sake? Maybe, but how does her behavior help empower her daughter? We know children do as their parents do and not as they say. So here's the First Feminist giving her daughter the message that even if your husband repeatedly cheats on you and drags your family's name through the mud, you stay.
Cognitive dissonance, the notion that we can't easily sustain two contradictory or incompatible beliefs at the same time without feeling anxiety, is the only state in which poor Chelsea can be. Sure, her mother can rattle off a host of rationalizations, like "I'm only doing this for the sake of the presidency" or "I made a vow and must honor it."
But actions speak louder than words. Chelsea will see her mother taking it once again. And not only will she see her mother smiling for the American people throughout the whole ordeal, but she will also be told to smile herself, as if nothing bad had happened.
The First Lady has said that she loves her husband, as if that explains this all away, but as Tina Turner once sang, "What's love got to do with it?" No one doubts that she loves him. But what is becoming increasingly clear is how co-dependent she is. Plenty of people are married to spouses who routinely exhibit obsessive-compulsive disorders and addictive behaviors. Contrary to what we might think, no one gets used to the idea of being perennially disappointed. The twentieth time can be even more upsetting than the first, because it takes a greater leap of faith each time to forgive someone for a transgression he or she has committed before. After a while, if the person does not clean up his or her act, we feel caught between a rock and a hard place. Do we stay and hope things will improve or leave to embark on an uncertain future?
We all know countless people who stay, and they each have their reasons. None of them is Hillary Rodham Clinton, but each is a human being. Hillary's problems may seem bigger than those of the woman next door, but they aren't. Both have to choose between the safe road and the potentially precarious one that might also be more authentic.
How is it possible to see Hillary Rodham Clinton as an empowered woman when she succumbs to her husband's historically empty promises? If we remember that everyone has feet of clay, it is relatively easy to accommodate a number of differing views of Hillary that enable us to still applaud her feisty intellect and, perhaps, deplore her personal choices.
Certainly, one could argue that she has more visibility than any other woman in this country, if not on the face of the earth, and once her husband is out of office, she can use that to do great things. Perhaps she is willing to bear the public humiliation in order to wield her position later on?
But no matter how we are able to rationalize her decision, it still sticks in the collective feminist craw to see a woman we looked up to act like such a wimp.
NICOLE S. URDANG is a psychotherapist in Buffalo.
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