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Hillary's Sneeze: Did Allergens or Bias Provoke It? Hillary's Sneeze: Did Allergens or Bias Provoke It?

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Hillary's Sneeze: Did Allergens or Bias Provoke It?

The loneliness of the long-distance trailblazer


President Obama and Vice President Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House.(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

So now Hillary Clinton says tree pollen made her do it.

The wide eyes, the hand clapped to the mouth in the now-famous photo of the White House Situation Room at the hour of Osama bin Laden’s death might have been a sneeze coming on, the secretary of state has let it be known.


Women of a certain age have reasons for disbelieving Clinton’s story – and for sympathizing with her reasons for telling it.

Those who entered the job market in the 1960s and 1970s know what it’s like to be what that headed-for-the-history-books photo showed President Obama’s top diplomat to be: the only skirt (or, in Clinton’s case, pantsuit) at the table.

Isolation can do funny things to you.


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It’s apparent in the way that female trailblazers of Clinton’s generation remain exquisitely self-conscious about – and apologetic for – anything that distinguishes them from the males they struggled so hard to make their peers. I know female senators who have agonized over the question of whether to carry a purse, worrying that it somehow detracts from the image of power they need to project. I remember a reporters’ breakfast years ago where Nancy Pelosi, then the No. 2 or 3 House Democratic leader, confidently fielded a wide range of questions – then stopped everyone from leaving so she could deliver a 10-minute soliloquy on her credentials, trying to convince people who had just spent an hour taking her seriously to take her seriously.

The moment was awkward one but understandable to those who came of age in the era “when everything changed,” as New York Times columnist Gail Collins put it in the title of her recent book about the history of women’s rights. Women who spent most of their careers being the sole representative of their kind in rooms full of men made a survival strategy of trying to blend in (remember those ghastly “power suits” of the 1980s?).  Because any thought or reaction that set them apart from their male colleagues tended put them at the wrong end of an invidious comparison.

A colleague who knows her well suspects Clinton might have been a bit irritated over the White House decision to release a photo that looks like the modern day version of something Rembrandt would have painted: In a decisive moment now forever frozen in time, Clinton stands out not just because of her femininity but her lack of impassivity. She said she was “sheepishly concerned” about the impression the image delivered.


Why? In the picture, Clinton looks like someone who is fully feeling all the range of possibilities implicit in that moment, for success and failure, for good and evil, for triumph and terror? Is that weak? Or is it wise? Is there anything wrong with someone who, confronted with bravery and evil, intrepidness and hatred, reacts to it in a human way?

So what if the secretary of state’s face reflected the knowledge that every actor in the drama – the SEALs, the couriers, the wives and, yes, even Osama bin Laden himself – was once some mother’s beloved child? Isn’t that a perspective we’d like to have included when it comes down to deciding when to pull a trigger or to push an even more deadly button?

Here’s hoping that someday we’ll get a picture from the White House Situation Room that features more than one woman at the table. Maybe then women no longer will feel obligated to hide their best qualities behind a sneeze.

Follow Kathy Kiely on Twitter at @kathykiely.

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