‘Holly’s Spaghetti Sauce.” “Julie’s Salmon Canapés.” Over the years, I’ve amassed a file of handwritten recipes titled after various friends who first served me various delicious things. But when I was thumbing through the file recently and came upon a card on which I’d copied down a recipe with the heading “Hillary’s Cookies,” I was puzzled. I couldn’t remember ever having had a friend or colleague with that name. Hillary who?
Then suddenly it came back to me: Hillary Rodham Clinton, that’s who.
That little cookie recipe brought back, with Proustian insistence (if it’s permissible to invoke Proust in connection with such a graceless moment in American cultural history), an earlier time: a time when we made Hillary Clinton make cookies.
It was 1992. Her husband was running for president, and she was trying to master the art of being a candidate’s wife without disavowing her own already formidable resume. Baited by reporters during the campaign — about her marriage, about the articles she had published — and exasperated by repeated questions about whether her law practice and her husband’s public life represented a conflict of interest, she made her famous remark about how she supposed she could have stayed home and baked cookies while her husband was governor of Arkansas, but instead she’d chosen to continue her career as a lawyer.
The look on her face, during this interchange with reporters, said, “Are you kidding me?” It wasn’t as if she were some lone female pioneer in the professional world. She was clearly trying — albeit clumsily — to make the point that with the career choices available to her generation of women, the stereotype of political wife as deferential helpmate was outmoded and that from now on the world of political spouses was going to become much more complex and varied.
She got slammed. The cookie-baking reference was seized upon as evidence not just that Hillary wasn’t a stay-at-home mom, but that she had contempt for women who had made this choice. (What she really had contempt for was the assumption that, for a politician’s wife, this was the only choice.)
The press and the public chose to misunderstand her, and they made her atone. “Family Circle” magazine ran a contest pitting Hillary Clinton’s cookie recipe against Barbara Bush’s. Barbara, with her usual patrician who-the-hell-cares? insouciance, turned in a recipe essentially copied from the back of the chocolate-chip package. Hillary’s entry was hipper: modernized with oatmeal. It was a canny, good-humored response to a situation both ludicrous and covertly hostile. Here was a supremely talented and accomplished woman who had made a verbal blunder, and we punished her by making her put on an apron. I’m embarrassed now to see that I copied down the recipe. (Although the cookies, as I remember, were excellent.)
Twenty years later, a lot has changed. And a lot hasn’t. As Clinton completes her term as secretary of state, following her years in the US Senate, she has overseen America’s foreign relations during a time of global financial crisis, conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Arab Spring uprisings. It is safe to say that no one would dream of asking her today for a cookie recipe — any more than we would dream of asking Joe Biden or Colin Powell.
And yet, “Family Circle” is still running its election year cookie bake-off between the spouses of rival presidential candidates, who apparently feel that refusing to participate might rock some antediluvian boat.
Our current first lady is another smart, accomplished lawyer who worked at high-level jobs and was the family’s primary breadwinner until her husband became president. Michelle Obama has devoted herself to the issue of childhood obesity, which is serious and important but which also falls into the traditional first lady role of homemaker-in-chief. The conversation now is all about what cardigan she wears and the color of her gloves. It will be interesting to see what she does after her husband’s presidency ends four years from now.
As for Hillary Clinton, she made a frustrated gaffe 20 years ago, asking to be respected in her own right. If in the future we accord everyone — woman or man — that respect, one reason will be that Hillary Clinton earned it.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’