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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, and the "Opt-Out" Generation

So it’s been an interesting summer for Hillary Clinton. Between her connection to scandal-makers like Anthony Weiner and Terry McAuliffe, questions about the Clinton Foundation’s finances, and speculation over whether she’ll run in 2016, one thing is clear: she’s incapable of keeping a low profile.

But what else is new? Sometimes it surprises me how little things change. For instance, years ago Hillary stood by her man after he’d publically cheated on her, because that’s what political wives do. Now Hillary’s protégé, Huma Abedin, is standing by her man, Anthony Weiner/Carlos Danger, even though his sexting habit has made him a national joke as he runs for New York City mayor. Friends of Abedin’s pontificated that she stays with Weiner because of their son, or possibly because her upbringing in Saudi Arabia has made her more submissive than a woman here would be.

Or, maybe it’s because she has political ambitions of her own.

That certainly makes her a lot like Hillary Clinton, which leads me to another question: if Hillary had actually left Bill, as in filed for divorce, this-is-over-for-good sort of leaving, would she be a viable candidate now? Perhaps, but then there's that unspoken assumption, that when a woman leaves a man because he wronged her in some way, her act of leaving is an acknowledgement of her own culpability. She couldn't fix the problems in her own marriage, so how will she fix world problems, which are far more complex than infidelity? (Unless you’re married to someone like Bill Clinton or Anthony Weiner, that is.)

So maybe both Hillary and Huma wanted to leave, but felt forced to stay. That's the reverse of my own situation from earlier this summer, when I felt forced to leave Monty even though it went against what I wanted. And with the craziness of our move and all the new adjustments that came with it, I’ve been grappling with my own issues of ambition and identity.

“You don’t have to work, you know.” Monty said this to me a couple of weeks ago, as we sat down to really examine our finances. Relocating from Seattle to Des Moines with a Washington D.C. salary is beneficial in a lot of ways, but there are still sticky points.

“I just mean,” he continued, “it might be better if you don’t. Because then we’d have to pay for childcare, and the money you’d make teaching would barely even cover that expense.”

“I’ve thought of that,” I said. “But if I don’t work…” I shook my head, unable to complete my thought.

“You’d have plenty to do, Luce.” Monty tapped his pencil against the table. We were sitting in the expansive kitchen of our expansive new house in West Des Moines. I was still getting used to the constant air-conditioning, shiny surfaces, and humongous closets.  “Hell,” he continued, “the 2016 campaign is already underway, and we’re in Iowa for God’s sake. If you don’t work you’ll have a lot more freedom to get involved.”

“Yeah…” I bit my lip and stared at the sheet of paper that outlined our monthly budget and expenses, but my mind drifted.  Ten years ago the New York Times wrote a piece about “The Opt-Out Generation.” It profiled many women who had decided to give up their careers and be homemakers instead. Now, ten years later, a follow-up piece has revealed that a lot of these women want their careers back, but their time away has made them undesirable when it comes to hiring.

“I think I need to do something,” I said. “Even if it doesn’t make sense financially, just to keep my options open for further down the line.”

 “Okay.” Monty shrugged. “I’m certainly not trying to hold you back. I just want to give you a choice.”

And while I’m sure this was all coming from a sweet, well-intentioned place, it occurred to me: why is it always the man who gives the woman a choice?

I stood, intending to refill my glass of water at the sink, but I kissed the top of his head as I passed. “I appreciate it,” I said over the running water. “But between taking care of my dad and taking care of the kids, I’m going to need something that’s my own. And even if it’s part-time, at least I’d be contributing financially a little bit.”

He didn’t argue and I certainly didn’t complain. After all, Monty had agreed to uproot our lives, accommodating my desire to move back home, so lately he’s gone above and beyond in the good husband department. And I realize I’m lucky to have the choice of whether to work or not. The fact that it’s a choice at all is a luxury, and part of me is tempted to simply care for my kids full-time and follow my interests without the inconvenience of a “job.”

But then I read a column by Maureen Dowd, a savvy career woman if there ever was one. She said, “Hillary Clinton’s first term will be seen, not as a continuation of Obama, but as Bill Clinton’s third term.”

So no matter how accomplished she is, Hillary Clinton will first and foremost always be Bill Clinton’s wife? I hope not. Her advisors have said that in 2016 she’ll embrace the idea of electing the first female president, and she’ll campaign on issues of female empowerment.

That’s good. Because power for her could mean power for us all.