Sexism and the Clinton Candidacy

Open misogyny, like open racism, has become a fringe position in America. But even people who believe they don’t have a sexist bone in their bodies are still influenced by it.

I’m a guy, and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. Lots of us are.

Naturally, I also know men who aren’t voting for her. But you know what I haven’t heard? Not one of the anti-Clinton men I know personally — not even in a wink-and-nod, just-between-us guys sort of way — says that it’s because she’s a woman, or that women in general have no business being president.

Of course, it’s also true that if you go looking for that opinion, you can find it. (Samantha Bee even found a woman who thinks women shouldn’t be in charge.) And if you want to rile yourself, it’s not hard at all to dredge up comments on Facebook and other social media calling the former Senator, First Lady, and Secretary of State a bitch, a cunt, or some other misogynistic name. If you visit the vendors outside a Trump rally, you can even get a misogynistic epithet on a t-shirt or bumper sticker.

But still, open misogyny has become a fringe position. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 92% of Americans said they could vote for a woman for president. Maybe that’s only because admitting otherwise has become uncool, but there are also more specific signs of progress. Just two election-cycles ago, during Clinton’s first presidential run, whether a woman could be commander-in-chief still came up from time to time. In this cycle, though, she has managed to turn that issue around, contrasting her own experience and gravity against Donald Trump’s impulsiveness. In a recent Fox News poll, voters trusted Clinton more than Trump on “making decisions about using nuclear weapons” by a 56%-34% margin.

So hurray! Sexism is over in American politics and we can stop talking about it.

Well, not exactly.

The racism parallel. Eight years ago, after we elected our first black president, a lot of people convinced themselves that racism was over. And if we’re talking about open KKK-style racism, they were almost right. Few people in 2008 or 2012 said they wouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black. Using the N-word against him in public, openly calling for white supremacy — you can still find that if you look, but it’s a fringe position.

And yet, the last eight years have been a lesson in just how pervasive the more subtle forms of racism are. If few white Americans would admit — even to other whites — that they didn’t want a black president, many many white people have seemed to hunger for some non-racial reason to dislike or mistrust Barack Obama.

And so, based no credible evidence whatsoever, a large segment of the American public have decided that he isn’t really an American, and so isn’t eligible to be president at all. Another large segment (with considerable overlap, I imagine) has convinced themselves that Obama’s whole religious history is a fraud, that he is secretly a Muslim, and is probably rooting for the jihadi terrorists (the same ones that he’s been killing with raids and drone strikes).

Others look at his family through jaundiced eyes. To them, Michelle — a beautiful, elegant woman by any standard — resembles a gorilla. When Sasha and Malia wear typical teen-age-girl clothes they get admonished to “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar“. The luxurious White House lifestyle, never an issue when white families lived there, suddenly looks uppity; and the cost of keeping the First Family safe on vacations — again, never an issue for the Bushes, Clintons, or Reagans — has been a point of resentment.

Whenever Obama acts like the President of the United States and accepts the deference that is due his office — like when a Marine holds an umbrella for him, or he puts his feet up on a White House desk — it just looks wrong. Sure, white presidents have been doing the same things for decades without irritating anybody, but this is different because … because … well it just is.

And the aura of respect that has sheltered even our most unpopular presidents from direct abuse in formal settings? That vanished as soon as a black man took control of the White House. Undoubtedly, Joe Wilson was not the first congressman to think a president had said something dubious in a State of the Union address. But none of the previous doubters had judged it appropriate to yell “You lie!”.

Summing up, a lot of Americans might say to President Obama: “I don’t hate you because you’re black. I hate you because so many of the things you do look wrong to me.” But if you take a step back and look at comparable situations from previous administrations, it’s hard to escape the realization that what is really wrong in Obama’s actions is that he’s black when he does them.

It’s not that blackness is bad per se — that would be the Jim-Crow-style racism we’ve almost all outgrown. It’s that for many Americans, blackness-in-power invokes a harsher standard of judgment that makes “This black president is bad” an almost inevitable conclusion.

Back to Hillary. So I think we should bring some skepticism to the idea that Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorable ratings are simply a fair public reaction to things she has said or done.

As with Obama and racism, not everybody who opposes Clinton is a sexist or dislikes her for gender-related reasons. But even if you can list apparently good reasons for not liking her, you need to consider the possibility that the things she says or does seem as bad as they do because Clinton is a woman when she does them.

Like racism, sexism may no longer dictate the views of most Americans, but it still has a strong influence.

Appearance. The most obvious way that Clinton is treated differently from male candidates is with regard to her appearance. Prior to Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, one of the most googled questions was what she would wear. A white pantsuit was the answer, a decision deemed worthy of historical analysis in The Atlantic.

For a man, of course, the question has a standard answer: a dark suit with a light-colored shirt and a red or blue tie. If a man wears that, he can count on everybody to forget what he’s wearing and concentrate on what he’s saying. But there is no standard choice for women, because no woman has ever been in this situation before. Whatever she wears, it just doesn’t look presidential. I mean, would Abe Lincoln wear a white pantsuit?

For contrast, look at the two men Clinton has run against — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both men have unusual hair. Both take some ribbing for it, but it’s really not a big deal. (Clinton could never have turned a bad-hair day into a t-shirt, as Bernie did.) I doubt that either of their campaigns wasted a single minute of meeting time discussing “What are we going to do about his hair?”

Ditto for wardrobe. Trump wears expensively tailored suits, while Bernie sometimes looks like he slept in his. Both choices are OK and raise no issues. But every fashion choice a female candidate makes is fraught. Does she look too “frumpy“? Or is she too vain? Does she worry too much about her appearance, or spend too much on her clothes? (Both Clinton and Sarah Palin got skewered on that one.) It’s fine for Mitch McConnell to get increasingly jowly as he ages, but could Nancy Pelosi get away with that? And if she takes action to avoid facial sagging, that’s an issue too.

Clinton’s voice is another perpetual problem: It’s too shrill and she shouts too much. But Trump and Sanders also shout a lot without anybody making an issue of it. Bernie’s gravelly voice is far from what they’re looking for in broadcasting school, but somehow it makes him more authentic, like Bob Dylan.

Sex and marriage. There’s also a moral double standard. As we all remember from high school, someone who has a lot of sex is a stud if male, and a slut if female. That double standard hasn’t gone away.

Imagine, for example, if Clinton had a marital history like Trump’s. Picture her standing on the convention stage with a much-younger male model for a husband, waving to the crowd while surrounded by the children she conceived with three different fathers, all still alive. It’s an absurd vision, because no such woman could be elected to any office whatsoever.

Oratory. The big fear leading up to Hillary’s acceptance speech was whether she could match the great speeches of the previous nights’ speakers: Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and the ultimate master of the convention speech, Barack Obama.

By all accounts, she didn’t. It was a good speech that made her case and did her credit, but she didn’t even attempt to lift our spirits like Obama did in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

But consider this: Is an Obama-level speech even possible for a woman candidate in 2016? Would we know how to listen to it and recognize its greatness?

I don’t think we would. I’m not even sure that I would. We’re well trained to hear certain kinds of ideas from men, and respond in a certain way to them. Hearing the same speech from a woman would be a different experience entirely. For example, Joe Biden basically gave a Knute Rockne halftime pep talk. Could a woman have pulled that off?

“But what about Michelle?” you might ask. “She’s a woman and her convention speech was magnificent.” Indeed it was, but it was rooted in her experience as a wife and mother. She was not a candidate, and was not asking us to give her power. If she had been, say, running for the open Senate seat in Illinois, we might have heard her speech very differently.

The rogue’s gallery. The example of Bernie’s “authentic” voice points to an even more subtle pattern that is frequently overlooked: Just as there are negative stereotypes (like slut or ball-buster) for women, there are endearing stereotypes that make excuses for the flaws of men. As a result, if a man needs us to cut him some slack, it doesn’t seem like that big a stretch.

As Franklin Roosevelt is supposed said about a Central American dictator: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” That line has been repeated about a number of American politicians since, including Richard Nixon. It’s a compliment of sorts: This guy may be immoral, but he’s going to do immoral things for us.

Trump’s long history as a con-man generates a similar excuse: Yes, he cheats people, but that’s why we need him: so that he can cheat the Chinese and the Mexicans on our behalf. Trump claimed that dubious virtue in his acceptance speech:

Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.

Lyndon Johnson was known as a wheeler-dealer, a stereotype that makes a virtue out of a man’s ability to bribe and threaten. If he can wheel and deal his way to Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, so much the better.

A standard character in our movies and TV shows is the charming rogue: Indiana Jones, Rhett Butler, Serenity‘s Captain Mal. He’s a rebel, a rule-breaker. He may be annoying at times and completely unreliable, but you keep forgiving him because it’s just so entertaining to watch him wriggle in and out of trouble. Trump and Bill Clinton both benefit from this stereotype, and in some circles so does Ted Cruz. (“Shut down the government? That scamp! What will he pull off next?”)

Female leaders don’t have any of those forgiving loopholes available to them. When the FBI announced that Hillary’s email mistakes were not indictable crimes, her supporters sighed with relief and her critics seethed with anger. (“Lock her up!”) Literally no one was charmed by her skill as a escape artist. (“She’s so smart! They’ll never nail her.”) If she were a man, though, many would be.

Clinton has been known to lie or mislead when she’s accused of something, behavior which (as the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof pointed out Sunday) is pretty standard for an American politician. And yet, a fairly small set of examples is enough to support an image of exceptional untrustworthiness.

Meanwhile, it is virtually impossible to hold a conversation with Donald Trump — on any subject — without hearing him lie. (Kristof: “In March, Politico chronicled a week of Trump remarks and found on average one misstatement every five minutes.”) The result: Slightly more voters describe Trump as “honest and trustworthy” than say the same of Clinton.

This is a pattern we should recognize from racial discrimination: We insist on high standards from our leaders, except when we don’t. Members of privileged groups — whites, men — can wrangle exceptions. Only the non-privileged — blacks, women — are actually held to those standards.

“But I just don’t like her.” Any woman running for office has to thread a very narrow needle: She has to look good without appearing vain, to sound strong but not bossy, project as friendly but not soft, and have years of experience without seeming old and stale. (Donald Trump can have no track record in government and be an outsider. A comparable woman would just be unqualified.) For a lot of Americans — even the 92% who told Gallup they could imagine voting for a woman — there might not be an eye in that needle at all.

Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute, writes:

High-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors that created that success – violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine.

Michael Arnovitz looked at the long-term graph of Clinton’s favorability and noted:

What I see is that the public view of Hillary Clinton does not seem to be correlated to “scandals” or issues of character or whether she murdered Vince Foster. No, the one thing that seems to most negatively and consistently affect public perception of Hillary is any attempt by her to seek power. Once she actually has that power her polls go up again. But whenever she asks for it her numbers drop like a manhole cover. … Most of the people who hate Hillary when she’s running for office end up liking her just fine once she’s won.

I’ve heard a number of people, even a few women, tell me that they wish the first woman nominee had been someone different. To which I respond: How different could she be and still have gotten here?

“But I’m not sexist! I’m voting for Jill Stein.” As every Green voter knows in his or her heart, Jill Stein is not going to be our next president. So the disorientation and the fear-of-the-unknown that Clinton evokes simply does not rise for anyone considering Stein.

Likewise, Stein hasn’t run the decades-long gauntlet (with its corresponding decades of unfair criticism and invented scandals) that puts a woman in position to be a major party nominee. If she had, I suspect she would seem like damaged goods too.

We’ve seen something similar to the Stein option with the Republicans and race. Herman Cain in 2011 and Ben Carson in 2015 both had moments in the sun, as Republicans waved their signs and said, “See! I’m against Obama, but I’m not racist.” Strangely, though, both candidacies had faded long before the first primaries. So no one ever had to cast a vote that had a serious chance of putting Cain or Carson into power. Similarly this November, no one will cast a vote that has a serious chance of putting Stein into power either.

A woman as a message-carrier? A woman as the symbol of an impossible dream? We’re all fine with that. But the prospect of giving a woman real power is something else.

Can we compensate? Obviously, it would make no more sense to vote for Clinton because she’s a woman than to vote against her for that reason. So what am I asking you to do?

Here’s my point: It is a very human reaction to instinctively recoil from something you’ve never seen before, to imagine that there’s something wrong with it, and then to go looking for reasons you can use to justify that pre-rational feeling of wrongness. I strongly suspect that lots of people who hate Hillary Clinton (and even a few who are going to hold their noses and vote for her out of disgust with Trump) have done that, or have been influenced by opinion-makers who do that.

Which is not to say that everyone who isn’t whole-hearted supporting Hillary is reacting out of sexism. She’s an American politician who has views, plans, and a record, none of which are perfect. No candidate — even great presidents who were white men — gets 100% of the vote.

But think about what you would like to have told those 2012 voters who were convinced that Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born terrorist-sympathizing fake Christian who hates America and wants to undermine our culture and society. Not that those wouldn’t be good reasons to vote against him, but why do you believe them? Could the thinking process that led you to those beliefs have been influenced by the subtle racism that infects almost everything in our society?

Our society is similarly infected with subtle sexism. Those things you believe about Hillary that make her uniquely objectionable, or so repellant that the difference between her and Trump seems too insignificant to take seriously, why do you believe them?

Could sexism have played a role in forming those beliefs? Think it through again.

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  • SCL  On August 8, 2016 at 10:00 am

    Yes. Here is a test: if you say you would vote for a woman, but don’t like Hillary specifically, then who is your alternate female candidate that you would vote for?

    I bet you no one can come up with a realistic female alternative to Clinton. (Prove me wrong)

    Thats how you know sexism is real. Not because we are disqualifying the most qualified female candidate we have. Sexism is real because we already disqualified 150 million or so women who will have no chance at the presidency at any point in their lives.

    • Larry Benjamin  On August 8, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      I know many people who would say Jill Stein, but as Doug pointed out, you can safely vote for her with no fear that she will actually be elected.

    • Guest  On August 8, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      I’ll bite, SCL. I’d vote for a woman and don’t particularly like Clinton as a candidate/politician. If the election was held today I’d vote for Jill Stein, and looking ahead would love the chance to vote for Tulsi Gabbard, Zephyr Teachout, and Nina Turner for starters. It’s fascinating that we can lament the fact that we are disqualifying 150 million women for the presidency and then in the next breath just completely dismiss Stein out of hand.

      In the great spirit of Doug’s post, the question has to be asked, how much of the cynicism against Stein (cynicism which, it should be noted, serves the establishment just fine) has roots in sexism? Obviously Stein isn’t the first progressive to be dismissed by the Clinton folks, but is Sanders’ gender a reason why he was allowed to overcome enormous odds and establishment disdain? Maybe. That should chill Democrats, especially those, and I suspect that there are some here, that agree with Stein on policies just as much if not more than with Clinton, and yet brush her away as non-serious.

      As we are rightfully being asked to be self-critical about the disgusting influences of subtle sexism, there are two threads for Democrats and Clinton supporters specifically I’d like to add to our list. One is the Bernie-bro syndrome (or Obama-boy if you’re feeling nostalgic) where calling out sexism veers off road to the point where no criticism, no matter how factually grounded, is allowed against Clinton. The other would be the subtle sexism that seems to be afoot where we can only assume a female presidential candidate is “serious” enough for consideration if she is sufficiently hawkish and willing to do the dirty work of the wealthy male elite who tip elections to their favor and write the legislation that gets pushed through in the aftermath.

      • Marty  On August 8, 2016 at 4:22 pm

        Off course we can dismiss Jill Stein out of hand: she is running for a third party without the kind of polls that are necessary to demonstrate viability. Without viability, you can’t win. Getting viability typically requires the kind of compromises that put women in the kind of double bind Clinton is in.

      • SCL  On August 8, 2016 at 6:41 pm

        “but is Sanders’ gender a reason why he was allowed to overcome enormous odds and establishment disdain? ”

        I kind of think it is. People like Clinton’s ideas, but they would like them better from a man.

        Jill Stein is fine but we know where it’s going to end. A two party system sucks but it’s the reality right now. If you really can’t vote for Clinton, vote for a cabinet with 50/50 gender parity, and a couple more liberal supreme court justices. Trump will not give you that.

      • Larry Benjamin  On August 8, 2016 at 8:57 pm

        My dislike for Stein has nothing to do with her being female. I’ve respected Gabbard and Teachout for a while now. They’re serious contenders for the Senate and even the Presidency eventually. Stein, on the other hand, is almost as ignorant as Trump. She’s pandering to the anti-vaxxers, and as a doctor, ought to know better. Stein’s current popularity is based on nothing more than disillusioned Sanders supporters who were casting around for a new non-Clinton candidate, and found her.

        I don’t think Stein is going to play the same role Nader did in 2000, because Clinton is going to crush Trump regardless, but if you want to waste your vote on a protest candidate, be my guest.

      • Guest  On August 9, 2016 at 11:26 am

        Regarding subtle sexism on the left, SCL, I’m thinking of something like the reverse or a tweak of what you said. People don’t like Clinton’s ideas (neo-liberalism) and can somehow more easily articulate that dissatisfaction when it’s coming from a woman, even though Obama is similarly dedicated (though perhaps not as fervently and with a shorter track record than the Clintons) to the neo-liberal cause.

  • joeirvin  On August 8, 2016 at 10:01 am

    For 240 years white Americans have been taught that people of color are inferior. We were founded as a racist country. Racism is ingrained in the Constitution. Even abolitionists and Lincoln believed blacks inferior. Obama’s reasonably successful presidency, and a family that’s a model of “family values,” is the ultimate rejection of all that teaching, a belief almost inbred is white men especially. Rich entertainers and athletes are still entertaining their white superiors. But a black president who puts the lie to centuries of white superiority and privilege? Trump’s support is simple blowback. His supporters are racists even before they are sexists.

  • Anonymous  On August 8, 2016 at 11:12 am Worthwhile checking up on your own implicit bias… The Implicit Association Test (IAT) measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about. For example, you may believe that women and men should be equally associated with science, but your automatic associations could show that you (like many others) associate men with science more than you associate women with science.

  • Donna victor  On August 8, 2016 at 11:36 am

    I can only saw Thank You. You brought tears to my eyes….you get it.

  • CathyS  On August 8, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Another great column that is well thought out and spot on.

  • Joseph Ramsey  On August 8, 2016 at 12:49 pm

    Brilliant! Thanks



  • Jacquie Mardell (@jacquiemardell)  On August 8, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    Barbara Jordan’s convention speech lifted me up back in the day. But I take your point.

    • 1mime  On August 8, 2016 at 9:13 pm

      I will never forget TX Governor Ann Richards’ address at the Democratic Convention. Pithy, funny, smart. What a woman!

  • Kate  On August 9, 2016 at 2:46 am

    Great column but I take a bit of issue on the overt ness of the sexism. One reason I switched to Clinton over Bernie was the nasty, over the top behavior on the left. It made even this longtime Feminist realize how far we haven’t come and even to realize some of my own internalized sexism. Once I did switch, the online comments I got were not veiled sexism but some of the nastiest anti-woman comments I have ever received. But what the campaign has also done is that it has brought the anti-woman issues on the left into focus and has women and men talking about them and protesting more than I have seen in years.
    I switched to Hillary because I thought that her success would do for women and our issues what Obama has done to surface race issues. I believe it is no accident that the resurgence of activism on race came during Obama’s presidency and I believe an HRC presidency will bring a similar empowerment to women.

    • TyphoidMary  On August 12, 2016 at 3:15 pm

      Kate, thanks for sharing your experience. I’m right there with you; thought it was a great article, but when I read the sentence “open misogyny has become a fringe position” I felt…. very tired.


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