Dondero by Don English/Las Vegas News Bureau; Bryan Courtesy of UNLV Special Collections; Clinton by Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

Female Politicians Can’t Catch a Break

Recently, Thalia Dondero and Bonnie Bryan died, and Hillary Clinton developed pneumonia. The events aren’t related, but the three of them certainly are.

What do they all have in common? Clinton and Dondero have been elected to public office, but Bryan wasn’t. Clinton was the wife of a president and Bryan the wife of a U.S. senator, but Dondero was married to an educator (back when the public actually respected teachers, but still). Bryan was born in California and Dondero grew up there, but Clinton isn’t a Californian. Yes, all three are women involved politically. Then it gets complicated.

All three entered politics through channels traditional to women of their generations—and didn’t. It depends on how you define their roles. Dondero was active in the PTA, as good mothers were supposed to be. She became director of the local Girl Scouts, then an assembly candidate, and finally, in 1974, the first woman elected to the Clark County Commission.

That club for good old boys expected her to take notes for the meeting because that’s what women did. She handled that and went on to spend 20 years on the commission dealing with issues such as water, flood control and parks—you know, man stuff. Then she spent two terms on the Board of Regents, a group that could pulverize a full-grown ox.

Bryan wasn’t a politician—or was she? She married Richard Bryan, whom she met when they were going to the university in Reno. Politics brought them together: He was running for student body president and a date with a sorority member might pick up some votes, so he asked her out. That led to a marriage that lasted just short of 54 years.

Clinton’s record and views are fair game, and she should be criticized accordingly. But when is it criticism and when is it sexism?

Bryan already had decided to run for governor someday, and did, winning in 1982. By then, Bonnie had joined the Junior League and other community groups, and was raising three children. She said when you voted for her husband, you got the whole package. That could be read a couple of ways. One, the Bryan family was active and busy. Or, the Bryan family was conscious that Dad was a public figure and had to act accordingly.

As Nevada’s first lady, Bonnie was involved in programs for the young (a ride program for kids who shouldn’t have been drinking, but since they were, to make sure they didn’t get behind the wheel) and old (helping seniors with prescription drugs). As a U.S. senator’s wife in Washington and a retired senator’s wife in Las Vegas, she stayed active in education and the Junior League, and in the fight against Yucca Mountain. In other words, she did a lot without getting much attention for it, or, for that matter, seeking it.

Then there’s Clinton, who was politically active from her youth, but might never have run for office if not for who she married. Then again, if she had married someone else, she might long since have become president.

Clinton’s record and views are fair game, and she should be criticized accordingly. But when is it criticism and when is it sexism? It’s fascinating how many people who disagree with her from the left or are close to her on the political spectrum deny sexism has anything to do with how they feel or how others feel.

The recent pneumonia issue was telling. Had she disclosed having it and not attended the 9/11 commemorations, she would have been attacked for not showing up when others power on through ailments—as though those criticizing her have actually powered on, or even could have. But she became overheated. Strangely, she didn’t trust the media on this matter.

Why? Joan Walsh of The Nation may have put it best in a beautiful article on how the political media are disgracing themselves: “Reporters have been primed to freak out about Clinton’s health by the right-wing sludge factory, which has managed to pollute the waters of mainstream discourse with phony rumors about her supposed maladies spread by Dr. Sean Hannity, the dumbest man on cable news.”

But some of it may be the way she is—emphasis on she. Clinton may seem too insular or private. (Nobody has accused her husband of being too insular.) But any woman in politics—Dondero and Bryan would have said this—approaches it differently than a man. The three of them, at various times, lived one another’s lives.

Ultimately, though, here’s the most important point: Bill Clinton came to Southern Nevada in place of his wife for a campaign appearance. If he’s like me—a man—and developed an ingrown toenail the day before the event, he would have had to cancel. And the media would have been sympathetic. Well, the male reporters.

Michael Green is an associate professor of history at UNLV.