Never Send a Woman to Do a Man’s Job: North Korea Edition

Cross-posted on Feministing.

In Kinshasa, Congo yesterday, a Congolese student asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton her husband’s opinion on an international economic issue.

“You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not secretary of state, I am,” she replied.

Since Pres. Bill Clinton’s productive visit to North Korea, Secretary Clinton has faced this line of questioning, which endangers American foreign policy efforts.

On the day that Pres. Clinton went to North Korea, I predicted there would be a media backlash about her absence. Now we see U.S. media, including not only Fox but also Huffington Post, perpetuate the idea that Bill Clinton succeeded where Hillary failed. Why send a woman to do a man’s job? Clinton had obviously lost credibility with the North Koreans, but U.S.-North Korea relations had soured during the Bush administration, long before she arrived.

Fox News may have started it with the declaration that Hillary was excluded from negotiations, because she had to “eat crow” after calling North Korea an “unruly child”, and couldn’t “show her face” in the country. But Huffington Post continued the insult with their front-page headline, which dangerously falsifies an imagined rivalry between Bill and Hillary.

Why not Hillary?

Of course, Kim Jong-Il specifically asked to see President Clinton in exchange for a pardon for Lee and Ling. During his presidency, Bill Clinton oversaw strong relations with Kim Jong-Il’s father, then-leader Kim Il-Sung. Rumor has it that the good rapport between President Clinton and Kim Il-Sung launched Kim Jong-Il’s enthusiasm for the American leader.

Furthermore, the mission was a private one, undertaken not at the urging of the White House but at the urging of Al Gore.

In July, when Secretary Clinton attended the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Forum, she compared North Korea to an unruly child. She did so to warn against a possible nuclear arms race with an attention-seeking state actor, which is certainly a threat in the region. Moreover, she said it in the context of her understanding of attention-seeking behavior as a mother.

Secretary Clinton was right. Kim Jong-Il acts not only like an unruly child, but an unruly fanboy. N.K.’s “Dear Leader,” who has kidnapped movie stars whose films he enjoys, was indulging his own desire to meet President Clinton by making the offer.

But Sec. Clinton enjoyed a verbal lashing from the North Korean-controlled news agency, KCNA (now on Twitter!). KCNA’s report called her “by no means intelligent,” continuing:

“We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community.

Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.

Anyone making misstatements has to pay for them.”

Familiar messages appear: Aged women are irrelevant. Women who stand up and disagree violate etiquette and should speak only when spoken to. Women are crazy. Women who are vulgar are ugly.

These are very Victorian insults. Attacking her clothes, KCNA degrades Secretary Clinton as both a naive girl and a senile elderly woman. The undertones of asylums in the phrasing of “funny lady” imply insanity. If Clinton were living in the 1900 House, these accusations would have context. No news.

Bill Richardson, who traveled to N.K. in the 90’s to negotiate for the release of downed American pilots, noted that “the Obama administration could not send a sitting official to Pyongyang because North Korea does not want to talk to members of the administration.”

There was never a point where the White House needed to decide between sending the President or Secretary Clinton, and thus there was no rivalry for this particular job.

The only genuinely unfabricated competition between the Clintons was the competition for the news cycle– Secretary Clinton’s trip to Africa received less front page coverage because of the release of Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Yet President Clinton was widely called the “Comeback Kid” evoking a scene where Bill Clinton battles his wife for media attention.

The idea of a power struggle within the Clintons’ marriage is not only sexist in its portrayal of Hillary as incompetent, but also dangerous to American interests abroad.

The message that Bill Clinton’s trip should send is not that our State Department failed, but rather that America boasts innumerable non-state actors with tremendous power for peacemaking, who can supplement and improve the efforts of officially sanctioned diplomacy.

I think the Clintons are encountering the question America encounters on an international scale: is a power increase necessarily a power shift? When China gains influence in Asia, does the United States lose influence? When Bill Clinton and HIllary Clinton share a stage, as Maureen Dowd coined it, does Hillary necessarily lose power?

Of course not!
But the American media says it must be so, and as a result, she is put on the defensive to prove her authority in question-and-answer sessions with the African youth she meets.

Eliminating this farce will better serve American diplomatic efforts – the world stage is big enough for both of them.

The Feminist Majority Foundation’s Campus blog also touched on this.

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