As we gear up for the 2016 election (yes, I’m sorry, we are, even though it’s not even 2015 yet), Hillary Clinton is emerging as a major and significant contender. That means that, just like in 2008, it’s time to brace for some serious social and political sexism, since this country apparently still can’t handle the idea of a woman candidate with any degree of respect or responsibility. While Clinton has a very real shot at the Presidency, she’s going to take a huge number of hits along the way, and it’s telling that even though she hasn’t officially declared, many of us are already bracing ourselves for the inevitable.
It seems obvious she’s declaring: She released a memoir earlier this year that pretty much paraded her political credentials and experience, she’s been more active publicly and politically, and she’s being extremely coy about whether she’s running. Her book was a stream of soundbites about how much she’s learned at State and the importance of public service, with continual reminders of her political and social connections, including global ones. She and her ghostwriter knew full well that in an era of serious international relations questions, pushing her State experience was a good call, and that’s exactly what they did.
Hard Choices also explores the ways in which Clinton has grown and matured over the years. Early on in the book, she talks about how she hardened over the course of her Presidential campaign, learning to discount offensive commentary, sexism, and rudeness so she could focus on getting the job done. She was also oh-so-careful about trying to balance her commentary: ‘One silver lining of defeat was that I came out of the experience realizing I no longer cared so much about what the critics thought about me. I learned to take criticism seriously but not personally, and the campaign certainly tested me on that.’
These are the words of a woman preparing to run for President, no matter what she says in the final chapter of the book about being uncertain. The Clintons are a political dynasty and she’s driven toward public life; having tasted political power and glory, she’s going to keep pushing for it. And why shouldn’t she? She’s an intelligent, powerful woman with a large number of smart ideas, many of which she spells out in the book. While I don’t agree with all of Clinton’s stances, she’s concerned about global warming, education, racial inequality, and other issues plaguing the US and the world, and she has some innovative solutions. She’s also shown a willingness to think outside the box and push herself, as for example at State when she pushed for a better understanding of digital diplomacy despite not being very tech savvy herself.
While Clinton may be a viable, strong candidate, that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to attack her on the basis of her gender. Over the next few years, we can expect to be subjected to an endless tide of commentary about her hair, her makeup, her clothes, her shoes. The very way she moves in public, how she talks to people, how she holds herself. A high degree of scrutiny that isn’t applied to men will be used against her, usually to argue that she’s doing something wrong. That she doesn’t look stately or Presidential enough, or to imply that she seems weak and unprepared for such a big role in US governance.
There are also, I strongly suspect, going to be the usual sexist and ableist comments about how she’s ‘crazy’ when her rhetoric and statements don’t suit critics. People on both the left and the right merrily fling accusations of mental illness at women candidates they don’t like, and not everyone on the left is in love with Hillary. (I certainly didn’t vote for her in 2008.) Despite the fact that ‘she’s crazy‘ is a ridiculous political argument that doesn’t actually provide any insight into why a candidate isn’t suitable for a position, many people fall back on that statement and think that means they don’t need to articulate their views any further — she’s crazy, what more do you want?
Hillary will be ‘crazy’ for some of her policy suggestions. She’ll be ‘too emotional’ if she shows, well, any emotions on the campaign, whether it’s sadness, anger, fatigue, or anything else. She’ll be ‘hysterical’ if she raises her voice or speaks out strongly on an issue (when she’s not being ‘shrill’ of course) and she’ll be ‘too weak’ and ‘meek’ if she speaks too quietly — even if she has a husky, low voice from campaign speeches or long meetings. Everyone will be looking for reasons to declare her unfit for office not on very real grounds like the kinds of policies she’s likely to advance and what kind of country she wants to shape, but on the grounds of her gender, because sexism is sometimes obvious, but sometimes subconscious, too.
And people may not realise that one of the reasons they oppose Hillary so strongly is because of her gender, but gender will play a role in how they conceptualise her, talk about her, and relate to her as a candidate. This doesn’t mean that Hillary shouldn’t be criticised, or that we shouldn’t be talking about her and holding her accountable, but it does mean that it’s important to think seriously about the implications of what we say when we talk about her — and to consider the framing of the statements we make about her and her political prospects.
Image: Hillary Clinton, Angela Radulescu, Flickr