Hillary Clinton is one of the most reviled politicians in the United States but most fail to ask why exactly that is. Many pretend that it’s about her policy positions (as if most Americans even know what they are) but, if that were the case, they’d feel the same way about almost every other politician. But they don’t. And while Hillary hasn’t said or proposed anything even remotely as awful as her Republican opponents, only she gets attacked mercilessly – by both sides – for who she is. That kind of behavior smacks of sexism.
The research on female leaders shows that it’s often a no-win situation for them. If they try to cooperate, they’re too soft. If they try to dominate, they’re too aggressive. If they smile too much, they’re trying too hard but if they don’t smile enough, then they’re a ballbuster (and that term is very telling). If they dress in a feminine way, they’re too sexy but if they don’t, then they’re trying to look like a man. And unlike male leaders, their appearance is constantly a topic for discussion. Add in the extremely low likeability factor for female leaders and one can realistically conclude that many people in our country don’t like or want female leaders.
People don’t want to admit that though. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people dismiss the sexism angle either directly (just saying you’re not sexist doesn’t make it true) or by saying they’d happily vote for Elizabeth Warren. I’m sure she’d be amused to know that she’s suddenly the female equivalent of the black best friend every racist seems to have. I like Warren too and would be thrilled to have her in the Oval Office but there are some major differences between her and Hillary. She doesn’t have the power and connections that Hillary does, she hasn’t been in the public eye nearly as long and, most importantly, she isn’t currently running. Let Warren announce her candidacy for president though and we’ll see how quickly people’s tune changes.
Hillary has her flaws but, with all the vitriol being spewed, it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s sexist. For example, she gets faulted for many of Bill’s mistakes. Name me one other political wife who’s been taken to task for her husband’s flaws (bonus points if you know the wife’s first name). Hillary frequently gets ridiculed for changing her hair, the kind of clothes she wears and how she looks in general. The complaint about appearance is always sexist (men aren’t judged on their looks) and, in fact, is pretty damaging. Research demonstrates that focusing on a female politician’s appearance leads to decreased confidence in her abilities and being less likely to vote for her. Hillary also gets taken to task for changing her policy positions. Leaving aside the question of whether that might be a good thing on occasion, please show me a politician who hasn’t. In fact, she gets roundly criticized for doing exactly what male politicians have always done; it’s just that she’s doing it with a vagina.
Hillary’s experience dealing with sexism in the public eye is so awful because it’s a mirror for many women. When she first appeared on the national scene, she was scorned for everything from her refusal to take Bill’s name and her headbands (again with the appearance!) to the emphasis on her career and her dismissal of the expectation to bake cookies. I didn’t take my husband’s name either (nor, I might add, did he take mine), I’ve been mocked for my appearance and questioned for my dedication to my career. And although I’ve spent years training and practicing my profession, the societal expectation for me to be responsible for the household tasks still gets rammed down my throat. I happen to like cooking but that’s an individual preference, not one I was born with because I’m female. So what I see when people go after Hillary is that women don’t have the freedoms I hoped we did.
Watching political pundits belittle Hillary for aging, showing emotion, being tough, not being tough enough, laughing or showing cleavage just reminds me of all the times I’ve been told to smile, sit down, and shut up because I’m a woman. Listening to people rail against her (most of them without a hint of actual knowledge) makes me remember when I fought alone because other women were too scared to fight themselves, times in which I was expected to laugh at sexist jokes or ignore sexist behavior, and situations in which I wasn’t taken seriously because I have a vagina. Like Hillary, I too have had men interrupt and condescend to me, wave their fingers in my face and try to intimidate me with their larger bulk. It’s beyond galling to play nice when you shouldn’t have to. That’s why watching Hillary be gracious to the arrogant male college student who wanted to know why people weren’t enthusiastic about her candidacy made me burn. He was talking to a former First Lady, senator from New York, and Secretary of State, someone who is more qualified to run for president than any candidate in generations and who has done more for others than he probably ever will do! Show some respect, ass!
And that’s the whole issue: this isn’t about Hillary, this is about gender. Regardless of what you think about Hillary, replace her with another woman and you get many of the same problems. That woman would also be held to a higher standard, garner less respect, yield lower likeability ratings, and get besieged with comments about her appearance. She too would have to deal with ridiculous statements from pundits (like commenting on the sound of her voice or how she reminds them of their first wives), field questions about things that male politicians don’t get asked (like what role her husband would play or who is taking care of the kids), and maybe even have a fun doll made in her image with the word Ballbuster prominently displayed on the box. Who among us would want to put up with that?
By denigrating, ridiculing and slinging hate at prominent female politicians like Hillary, we’re ensuring that no other woman will want to trudge through that most terrible of gauntlets. By making it nearly impossible for female politicians to get fair treatment, we’re guaranteeing that women like Elizabeth Warren will never run for president. This is already a serious problem because we’re 95th in the world for women’s national legislative political representation and we’ve never had a woman president. Even Pakistan – a country not known for its fair treatment of women – has had a female leader. We need to groom future women politicians but the sexist treatment of Hillary may be reducing the number of women of running at the local or state level.
The fact that a woman has a good chance to become president has had a tremendous impact on this election cycle, some of it exciting (the prospect of making history) and some of it discouraging (the usual sexist dreck). I’ve heard people wonder if women might vote for Hillary merely because she’s a woman. That this is even a concern emphasizes the problem of not having enough female politicians. But leaving aside the inherent sexism in such a worry, I think those people can rest easy. Most women voters care about the quality of the candidate regardless of gender. Just ask Sarah Palin.