You know what’s the biggest problem in America right now? Government shutdown? Potential war with North Korea? Nah, it’s Chelsea Clinton. You could be forgiven for not understanding where this has come from all of a sudden, but it is BIG NEWS for some people.
One issue is whether she is running for office now or might ever run in the future.
Related to this is the whole issue of whether or not Chelsea Clinton should be allowed to exist as a person in any public or private sphere, an issue best exemplified in this Vanity Fair piece with the telling headline “PLEASE, GOD, STOP CHELSEA CLINTON FROM WHATEVER SHE IS DOING”
The contention of the piece is that “whatever she is doing” is really trying to continue the failed”dynasty” of the Clintons, but it’s quite clear from the amount of trolling she’s received in the past few days that whatever she is doing, people are mad about it. Her crime is not even seeking public office, or speaking out on political issues. Her crime is refusing to say “I have no right, now or in the future, to express views or be in public” to the people demanding it of her.
The right of women to be in public, to speak to mixed audiences of men and women, has never been assumed, and was explicitly denied for much of U.S. history. To that end, it’s instructive to look back at the historical roots of this discussion. This issue split American abolitionists in the 1830s. Did women have the right or even the obligation to speak out publicly against slavery?
Angelina Grimké, a Quaker abolitionist from a South Carolina slaveholding family, argued that they did, urging the use of petitions and speaking in public herself. Her argument was that men and women had the same capacity to know good from evil, so therefore should have the same right – or even obligation – to speak out against evil. Grimké and her older sister Sarah increasingly asserted their right to speak out against slavery, and every time they were silenced by opponents and “allies,” they further defended their right to speak in general.
More instructive, perhaps, are the arguments arrayed against the Grimkés. Catharine Beecher’s 1837 An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism Addressed to Miss A.D. Grimké provides us with some language that should sound familiar:
If it is asked, “May not woman appropriately come forward as a suppliant for a portion of her sex who are bound in cruel bondage?” It is replied, that, the rectitude and propriety of any such measure, depend entirely on its probable results. If petitions from females will operate to exasperate; if they will be deemed obtrusive, indecorous, and unwise, by those to whom they are addressed; if they will increase, rather than diminish the evil which it is wished to remove; if they will be the opening wedge, that will tend eventually to bring females as petitioners and partisans into every political measure that may tend to injure and oppress their sex, in various parts of the nation, and under the various public measures that may hereafter be enforced, then it is neither appropriate nor wise, nor right, for a woman to petition for the relief of oppressed females.
Put in simple terms: if women speak up in public and annoy men in doing so, they’ve just made things worse.
More broadly, though, Beecher cautioned Grimké and her supporters:
…the moment woman begins to feel the promptings of ambition, or the thirst for power, her ægis of defence is gone. All the sacred protection of religion, all the generous promptings of chivalry, all the poetry of romantic gallantry, depend upon woman’s retaining her place as dependent and defenceless, and making no claims, and maintaining no right but what are the gifts of honour, rectitude and love.
Shorter: women who step out of place lose the right to be treated with the unique respect due to women. Even shorter: what did you think was going to happen when you went out?
This is why no matter what Chelsea Clinton says, this won’t stop, and her treatment – which began when she was savagely mocked as a child in the White house – demonstrates that the “ægis of defense” is and always has been a lie.
If you want to read more about this, the best place is actually a text produced for use in history classes, part of the Bedford Series in History and Culture. Check out Kathryn Kish Sklar’s Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement, 1830-1870: A Brief History with Documents