At the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing, a bouquet of roses lay beside First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton on the podium. She was pretty in pink and pearls, her blond hair falling over her shoulders — almost girlish.
But she spoke forcefully. "If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference," she declared, "let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, once and for all." From the gathering of 47,000 participants and activists, the speech was transmitted round the world.
Today, as presidential candidate, Hillary is a mother and a grandmother, front and center. Her husband, former president of the United States, is her helpmeet.
Of course, the Lewinsky scandal was not the first time Hillary had been called to this particular wifely duty. In 1994, there was the sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill by former Arkansas state worker Paula Jones. And before that, early in the 1992 presidential campaign, Gennifer Flowers revealed her 12-year affair with him.
For damage control, the couple gave a joint interview to Steve Kroft on CBS' "60 Minutes." The idea was to come clean about the Flowers accusation. But Bill refused to confirm or deny infidelity. After 10 minutes of unsuccessful haranguing, Kroft took a different tack. Most Americans would find it "admirable" that the Clintons had stayed together, he ventured, and "reached some sort of an understanding and an arrangement—"
Bill leapt. "Now, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. You're looking at two people who love each other. This is not an arrangement or an understanding. This is a marriage. That's a very different thing."
Which is when Hillary famously said, "I'm not sitting here as some little woman standin' by my man, like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him and I respect him, and I honor what he's been through and what we've been through together." They'd been extraordinarily candid already, she said. "And if that's not enough for people, then, heck, don't vote for him."
She held Bill's hand.
Was Hillary a doormat, a dupe or a striver willing to endure anything to make it to the White House? Hardly anyone accepted that she was who she said she was — a wife in a loving, complicated marriage and half of a tough political team.
No one knows how Hillary was feeling about Bill when she went to Beijing in '95, either. But the word "wives" appeared only twice in a speech of more than 2,300 words. Men lurked in that speech as the unnamed enforcers of the laws and customs — and violence — that subjugate women.
By the time Hillary was a New York senator, she and Bill were barely living together: she in Washington D.C., he in Westchester, N.Y. As secretary of state in the Obama administration, she was mostly on the other side of the globe. Hillary was, at that point in her life, a public figure, not a wife.
Still, the Clintons were affectionate and supportive of each other. They seemed far from estranged.
Now Bill is a member of the Hillary for America team. According to early speculation, he will remain behind the scenes for the moment. Later, he will almost certainly be deployed to warm up voters, smooth over blunders and defend her from attacks — in other words, to do what she did for him.
The vast right-wing conspiracy that Hillary blamed for Bill's travails is drilling into Emailgate ("Hillary Clinton Lesbian Lovers Named in Secret Emails," reports the National Enquirer). It hasn't given up on Benghazi. Recently it has drawn Hillary's aide-de-camp Huma Abedin into its sights. Allegedly, Abedin is the link among the emails, Benghazi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Right-wing publications also rarely fail to smear Abedin by mentioning her marriage to former U.S. representative and high-profile sexter Anthony Weiner.
Yet, as late as September, the New York Daily News reported that the Abedin-Weiner marriage "appear[ed] intact." Weiner is working as a pundit on a local cable news show and starting a restaurant. "A source close to [him]" told the Daily News that his "professional decisions are based on whether they will accommodate Huma and her schedule."
Like the Clintons', the Abedin-Weiner relationship is both a marriage and an arrangement.
In 1992, Bill would not admit that such a hybrid was real. But the other things the couple said about themselves still appear to be true: Bill was a horndog who also loved and respected his wife — and she him. Hillary may be bisexual and Bill OK with that (according to Flowers, anyhow, he was not bothered that his wife had "eaten more pussy than he had"). The melodramatic gender roles — callous, philandering husband; tragic, wronged wife — don't play out as scripted.
Feminists, including me, have long parsed the Clintons' lives in gender terms. We can't help it, given that Hillary is perpetually on trial as a woman, facing charges of violations of acceptable femininity: hips (too wide), age (too old), emotionality (too little), ambition (too much).
But if Hillary is a woman — and only a woman — to the world, inside her marriage the gender roles are fluid. Depending on the situation, either partner is the husband, either the wife. The marriage, in other words, represents that most human of all human rights: the right not to be a woman or a man.
And that may be what confuses people and riles conservatives most. Their most serious indictment of Hillary Rodham Clinton: Her relationship to Bill is too queer.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Hillary's Marriage Is Queer"
Judith Levine is the author of four books, including Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping and Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex. Her column, "Poli Psy," appears biweekly in Seven Days.