Hillary Clinton and Las Descamisadas

On a visit to Houston, my client was kind enough to take me to a very nice South American restaurant. One of the items on the menu was the pollo camisado, or literally the shirted chicken (the “shirt” consisted of plantain chips.) I joked that Juan Peron’s favourite dish would have been pollo descamisado, or shirtless chicken.

Peronistas and students of Latin American history will recall that a large part of Peron’s support came from the working classes, referred to as los descamisados, the shirtless ones. It’s also worth recalling that Peron’s second (Eva) and third (Isabel) wives played prominent roles in the government, Isabel actually ending up President herself. It’s also worth noting that Argentina continues the tradition of elevating presidential wives with Cristina Fernández de Kirchner now President.

In this backdrop Hillary Clinton’s rise as a viable Presidential candidate isn’t so extraordinary. But the parallel goes beyond that. As the exit polls from her victory in New Hampshire remind us, much of her appeal is to single, economically disadvantaged women. It’s tempting to complete the circle by referring to these supporters as las descamisadas, but in our leering society such a reference would inevitably be taken the wrong way. (One should remember, however, that American soccer star Brandy Chastain demonstrated that one could become descamisada and still not be past outerwear).

The wrong way, however, brings up another subject: the link that feminists make between economic freedom and sexual freedom. The fact that both were kick-started in the same era makes it easy to think that both are the product of the same source. But reality is a more complicated business that it appears, and like many other results of the 1960’s this is no exception.

Up until then the paradigm was simple: the man went out and worked and the woman stayed home and raised the children. But this simplistic model seemed unsatisfactory for many reasons. The combination of the erosion of men’s fidelity through the Playboy philosophy and women’s rising expectations of men keeping their end of the bargain helped to fuel the explosion that our country hasn’t quite recovered from. (And for those of you who think this is ancient history, consider the number of Presidential candidates who are products of the era.)

Starting at that time the marriage rate went into in a state of decline. Single parenting (either permanent or through serial monogamy) is the way of life in many households. Women end up carrying more than their half of heaven in the field of single parenting, with the depressed income levels that generally go with it. The promise of sexual freedom has soured in the face of the poverty it has created.

The core of the problem—at least on the front end—was stated at its most basic by the Chinese author Lu Xun. In 1923 he addressed a women’s college in a famous (in China, at least) address “What Happens after Nora leaves Home,” a reference to Henrik Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House.”  In that address he stated the following:

“The crucial thing for Nora is money or – to give it a more high-sounding name, economic resources,” Lu Xun explained. ”Of course, money cannot buy freedom, but freedom can be sold for money. Human beings have one great drawback, which is that they often become hungry. To remedy this drawback, and to avoid making people puppets, the most important thing in society seems to be economic rights. First, there must be a fair sharing between men and women in the family; secondly, men and women must have equal rights in society.’”

The key to making personal independence work is economic self-sufficiency (or at least viability.) Simply achieving freedom isn’t enough. The result of that was best put by someone better known to Americans, Janis Joplin: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” The equality of rights was far ahead of Old China’s to start with, and continues to advance, but insufficient opportunity—for a long list of reasons—has blunted the existence of legal equality.

So, as Lenin would ask, what is to be done? Enter Hillary Clinton, whose own antecedents give her a ready-made solution to the problem. Much has been speculated as to the “why” of Hillary Clinton, but Camille Paglia has probably the best explanation one could want:

A swarm of biographers in miners’ gear has tried to plumb the inky depths of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s warren-riddled psyche. My metaphor is drawn (as Oscar Wilde’s prim Miss Prism would say) from the Scranton coalfields, to which came the Welsh family that produced Hillary’s harsh, domineering father.

Hillary’s feckless, loutish brothers (who are kept at arm’s length by her operation) took the brunt of Hugh Rodham’s abuse in their genteel but claustrophobic home. Hillary is the barracuda who fought for dominance at their expense. Flashes of that ruthless old family drama have come out repeatedly in this campaign, as when Hillary could barely conceal her sneers at her fellow debaters onstage — the wimpy, cringing brothers at the dinner table.

Hillary’s willingness to tolerate Bill’s compulsive philandering is a function of her general contempt for men. She distrusts them and feels morally superior to them. Following the pattern of her long-suffering mother, she thinks it is her mission to endure every insult and personal degradation for a higher cause — which, unlike her self-sacrificing mother, she identifies with her near-messianic personal ambition.

From these antecedents, Hillary’s solution is simple: replace the men and the family with the government. Such a solution would, as Lu Xun put it, make people puppets, but forty years of waiting for men to come to the rescue that didn’t and a social system not designed for a nanny state has given Clinton a ready made constituency. As political commentators have noted, the mobilisation of single women as a political force could carry Clinton to the White House.

But first she must get past her own party, with two main obstacles. The first is the upper income part of the party, which has become enamoured with Barack Obama’s call for change (change to what is unclear.) The second is the black community, which is finally beginning to see Obama as truly one of their own and having a real shot at the Presidency. The solidarity of the “oppressed” is cracking in a very visible way, and the outcome of this complex drama is not yet clear.

But in the meanwhile las descamisadas continue to struggle to make it through life. They would do themselves more favours, however, by following the Way of the Saviour—with its directives and benefits, personal and economic—rather than looking for another messiah who promises freedom but in the end makes puppets.

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