While Hillary Clinton has made clear that she won’t decide whether she wants to pursue the presidency in 2016 until next year, Republicans have decided they already are going to make her a top target. Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee Chairman, has promised this month to go after the “rough stuff” about Clinton in an ad campaign that will be “very aggressive.” The Republicans are promising a shotgun approach; just shoot out things like the “a botched health care roll out in the '90s and Benghazi,” and hope something hits.
This isn’t the first time that Republicans have tried to nasty attacks against Hillary. That tradition stretches back to 1992, when Republicans decided to go after her with a series of sexist attacks that continued into her husband’s administration. As Republicans start to open up attacks against Hillary once again, it’s worth remembering the sexist overtones in the earliest Republican attacks on Hillary, and how these attacks can backfire on Republicans.
“Hillary-bashing” became a central theme in the Republican campaign in 1992. “No one can convince me that the American people are so blind that they would replace Barbara Bush with Hillary Clinton," Pat Roberston told the Republican convention. This was no ordinary First Lady, she was, as Patrick Buchanan said, a “lawyer-spouse” who “has compared marriage as an institution to slavery.” While Hillary had been the stable breadwinner in years when Bill tried to get his political career to take off, Republicans were deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a marriage in which a woman could hold a successful career, especially one that may be on par with that of her husband. Even Barbara Bush, who first resisted the idea of going after Hillary, eventually came around to seeing her as “quite different” and a fair target.
In that election cycle, Republicans were attracted to portraying Hillary’s career as the manifestation of something maniacal about her intentions. In 1992, the right-wing American Spectator characterized Hillary as the “Lady MacBeth of Arkansas.”
The deep-seated antipathy to Hillary in that campaign was part of the right’s inability to accept women in the workplace. The idea of a professional woman disturbed Republicans. The year before, the party had gone after Anita Hill for speaking out about workplace sexual harassment from her boss, Clarence Thomas. Watching the all-male Senate panel grill Anita Hill encouraged women across the country to run for political office. Amongst them was a state legislator, Patty Murray of Washington, who was told that she couldn’t succeed in politics as a “mom in tennis shoes,” but she used that as her campaign slogan.
Despite the personal nature of the attacks against her, Hillary maintained a sense of calm in the campaign and emerged as an important voice for women. In April 1992, U.S. News and World Report, called her the “overbearing yuppie wife from hell.” When she was asked about the derogatory attack by a reporter, Clinton smiled and told the reporter, “I’m too old to be a yuppie.” She became a leader for contemporary women with her commitment that her career was “aimed to assure that women can make the choices whether it's full-time career, full-time motherhood or some combination." The Republican attempt to skewer her as a supporter of “radical feminism” failed, and revealed how deeply anti-feminist the Republican Party was.
Today’s Republican Party has more women leaders than it did in 1992, but it is largely running damage control on its record regarding women. The GOP is giving special training to men running against women in order to prevent another comment along the lines of Todd Akin’s discussion of "legitimate rape." The “radical feminist” smear didn’t work against Hillary Clinton in 1992 but Republicans tried to use the exact same line this year to attack Cornelia Pillard, a nominee for the D.C. Circuit, despite her sterling reputation as a Supreme Court advocate. Once again, that attack backfired as it became a rallying cry for her supporters, but the episode shows that the "radical feminist" weapon has not left the Republican arsenal.
Republicans have Sarah Palin and four women governors, but they are still willing to attack Democratic women with sexist attacks. We’re already seeing hints of this in the right-wing attacks on Hillary. After a successful rebuttal of Republican attacks about about Benghazi, the New York Post mocked Clinton’s testimony with a sexist headline, “No Wonder Bill’s Afraid,” claiming that she “exploded with rage.” If a man gave that testimony, you would never see those kind of derogatory remarks.
As the right prepares to go after Hillary once again, we may see elements of this anti-feminist campaign come out again. The Republican Party has made progress on women’s issues since Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan were major movers and shakers in the party, but they may choose to once again go after Clinton with sexist attacks. If they do, it will once again backfire and help contribute to a unique "year of the woman," the year that Americans elected their first female president.
Editor's Note: The original version of this article called Senator Howell Heflin, a Republican, when he was in fact a Democrat. The story has removed the reference.