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"Rhymes with Rich": "Bitch" as a Tool of Containment in Contemporary American Politics Karrin Vasby Anderson Connie Chung: Mrs. Gingrich, what has Newt told you about President Clinton? Kathleen Gingrich: Nothing, and I can't tell you what he said about Hillary. Chung: You can't? Gingrich: I can't. Chung: Why don't you just whisper it to me, just between you and me. Gingrich: "She's a bitch." About the only thing he ever said about her. I think they had some meeting, you know, and she takes over.1 When Kathleen Gingrich, mother of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, called the first lady of the United States a "bitch," her comment was treated as an aberration of public discourse and a sign of her political naivete. Connie Chung was lambasted by the public and professional colleagues alike for compromising journalistic ethics by "tricking" Mrs. Gingrich into an embarrassing disclosure .2 The morning after the interview Newt Gingrich lamented, "I think it is unprofessional and frankly pretty despicable to go to a mother, who is not a politician , not in public life, and say 'whisper to me' and then share it with the country."3 Others viewed the incident as merely a sign of Mrs. Gingrich's lack of sophistication . Emory linguist Lee Pederson concluded, "I can't imagine Rose Kennedy saying anything like that publicly."4 Whether or not Kathleen Gingrich's revelation was an unwitting disclosure or a deliberate jab at the first lady, it revealed the challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton had been battling since her entree onto the political stage—how does a woman in a public position of power cultivate an image of competence and leadership without being dismissed as a "bitch"? Karrin Vasby Anderson is a Lecturer in the Department of Speech Communication at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. This essay is part of the author's doctoral dissertation, completed at Indiana University. The dissertation advisor was Robert L. Ivie. The author wishes to thank Robert L. Ivie, J. Michael Hogan, Cindy L. Griffin, Patricia Vasby, and Thad Anderson for their contributions to this project. Editorial suggestions provided by the editor and the anonymous reviewers for Rhetoric & Public Affairs were particularly helpful. © Rhetoric & Public Affairs Vol. 2, No. 4, 1999, pp. 599-623 ISSN 1094-8392 600 Rhetoric & Public Affairs The first lady may have found an answer to that question during the most recent Clinton scandal in which the president admitted to having an "improper relationship " with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Although the Lewinsky scandal triggered impeachment charges for her husband, Rodham Clinton seemed to rise above the fray through her stoic support of the president and commitment to her family. Words such as "grace" and "dignity" were used in connection with the first lady, standing in marked contrast to epithets such as "shrill" and "bossy," terms more likely to be used to describe her early in the Clinton presidency. What triggered this symbolic transformation? In part, it can be attributed to Rodham Clinton's careful and measured attempts to change the story that defined her. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd remarked that Rodham Clinton "came in as Eleanor Roosevelt and left as Madonna."5 The first lady's metamorphosis has been so thorough of late that it is almost difficult to remember the nature of her political identity during the early years of Clinton's first term and the severity of the criticism leveled against her. Re-examining that period, however, can lend useful insight into the rhetorical climate that greets women at the end of this century. In this essay I contend that examining Rodham Clinton's experiences from 1992 to 1994 through the lens of the metaphor "bitch" helps us understand better the constraints faced by all women leaders. "Bitch" not only is a defining archetype of female identity, but also functions as a contemporary rhetoric of containment disciplining women with power. Rodham Clinton's experiences during the 1992 presidential campaign and the subsequent health-care reform campaign reveal the extent to which sexist stereotypes persist in contemporary American politics, trapping women in the double bind between femininity and competence. Although many critics have...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5238
Print ISSN
1094-8392
Pages
pp. 599-623
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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