How an offhand comment about cookies and tea summed up a moment in American politics
In the introduction to her new newsletter Lenny, the inaugural issue of which went out Tuesday featuring an interview with Hillary Clinton, Lena Dunham points to a specific moment in 1992 when a comment Hillary made sparked both a hubbub in that year’s presidential race and Dunham’s own political awakening.
“It started in 1992, when Lena wrote her third-grade term paper on Hillary’s controversial ‘tea and cookies’ comments,” Dunham and co-founder Jenni Konner note in the introduction to the issue. “Even nine-year-old Lena was scandalized by the twisted gender politics and Stepford expectations placed on a First Lady with a career and vision of her own.”
The comments Dunham refers to came in response to an attack made by presidential hopeful and at that time former Governor of California Jerry Brown—who also happens to be the current Governor of California—during the 1992 contest for the Democratic nomination.
Unlike most politicians’ wives throughout the history of America’s male-dominated democracy, Hillary Clinton came to her marriage with a successful and fast-advancing career of her own as an attorney, political activist and advocate for the rights of children. When her husband Bill went into politics in Arkansas she declined to set her own career aside and continued to practice law, flaunting long-established gender norms of the politician’s wife as homemaker and supportive wife-mother.
In a prelude to the hard-knuckle politics that were to follow the Clintons for the next two decades, Gov. Brown accused Bill Clinton of improperly helping his wife’s legal practice in his capacity as the governor of Arkansas. (The accusation was not substantiated.) Hillary fired back via the press with a sentence that roiled traditionalists who were already fired up by the era’s culture wars.
“I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas,” she said.
Many traditionalists—as well as women who might otherwise have supported the Clintons—were outraged. “If I ever entertained the idea of voting for Bill Clinton, the smug bitchiness of his wife’s comment has nipped that notion in the bud,” one New Jersey voter told TIME back then. “I resent the implication that those of us who stay at home just bake cookies. We hardly have the time!” said a Wisconsinite.
Though the comment may have sparked a young Dunham’s political consciousness, it was seen by many as a major misstep for Clinton, just making her image tougher than it already was. (Never mind that many media outlets—this magazine was not among them—failed to report the fuller sense of Clinton’s statement at the time, which addressed the very controversy the comments stoked. “The work that I have done as a professional, a public advocate, has been aimed…to assure that women can make the choices,” Clinton continued, “whether it’s full-time career, full-time motherhood or some combination.”) Either way, it spoke to a moment in time when the country was still working through the socio-cultural implications of the sexual revolution and the women’s rights movement, when it wasn’t clear how a feminist political spouse with a career of her own was supposed to act.
As we know now, the gaffe wouldn’t ultimately keep the Clintons from the White House—and today it has pride of place in an unabashedly pro-Clinton interview as the candidate makes a play to redefine White House spousehood all over again.