Here's What She Wants

'WHAT DOES Hillary want?" That question defined the last phase of the nomination contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and it came from pundits, editorial writers, and, finally, from the candidate herself.

"What does Hillary want?" Clinton asked on June 3. Still in her nonconcession mode, she answered by saying, "I want to hear from you," and sent supporters to her website. It seemed she wanted to build support for what else she wanted, whether the vice presidency, help with her campaign debt, a role at the convention, whatever.

Meanwhile, the question had lodged itself over America as evidence of the antifemale bias that has stoked the anger of so many women. Obviously, "What does Hillary want?" is a variant on Sigmund Freud's question, "Was will das Weib?" What does a woman want? Freud claimed not to have found the answer, but, of course, he did: A woman wants to be a man. She is, after all, anatomically incomplete. As Freud's psychoanalytic heirs have shown, his analysis was inadequate. Freud himself knew that, but he raised his question, finally, as a way of blaming on women his own failure to understand women. "The great question that has never been answered," he wrote, "and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my 30 years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?' "

The question suggests not only that the questioner is a man, but also that he is mystified by the multiplicity of female desires. She wants, as the man sees it, the contradictories of control and submission, erotic expression and maternity, connectedness and freedom. Whatever a man provides, it is not enough. The man who asks the question, in fact, is not asking. He is complaining. Like Freud, he is blaming his inability to meet the needs of women on women. The question, therefore, implies its own answer: A woman wants not to be asked a trick question.

"What does Hillary want?" does something similar.

One need not have been a Clinton supporter to understand how enraging this election campaign has been for women. Men, too, are feminists, and we have felt the antiwoman insult that has fueled so much of the response to Clinton, even as she poured fuel of her own onto the fire that finally burned her chances up. To compensate for the overriding bias that women are not tough enough, for example, she became hypertough. That led into the decisive mistake of her support for the war, which in turn generated the emotional dissonance that made her overriding message ("an experienced leader you can trust") ring hollow. The important point, though, is that even this self-defeating impulse represented her attempt to break out of the prison of misogyny. When it came to the toughness card, the senator was doomed if she played it, and doomed if she didn't.

Barack Obama has had to confront versions of this same dynamic, for racial bias is at least as pervasive as gender bias.

"What does the black man want?" is the question that stirs in white people's hearts on certain streets at night. And, as with women, the black man wants, thank you, not to be asked such an implicitly demeaning question.

It remains to be seen whether Obama will continue to defuse the explosive antiblack bigotry that defines so much of American life. What matters now is to be clear that the antiwoman insult that many Clinton supporters felt came not from the Obama campaign, nor from Obama himself. It came, like bad weather, from the very atmosphere of a civilization rooted in male supremacy. This civilization is rooted, equally, in white supremacy. And, no, that double-edge structure of oppression will not easily be dismantled. If women and blacks are made to see each other as rivals, and even as enemies - as has been the case this long electoral season - whose interest is being served?

Here is the question: What do white men want? And here is the two-fold answer: We want the dominance we've always had; we should want help in leaving it behind, because for us, too, it is a trap.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

(c) Copyright 2008 The Boston Globe

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