At the conclusion of last week’s town hall debate, a participant asked the presidential candidates to “name one positive thing that you respect in one another.” Hillary Clinton cited Donald Trump’s children while Trump lauded Clinton’s tenacity. Did those responses flip traditional gender roles — praising the man for his child-rearing and the woman for her fighting spirit — or reinforce them, with the woman highlighting family and the man focusing on toughness? You can spin it either way.
When many people look at Clinton, they don’t see a specific politician with a particular background and personality. They just see a woman. Many of these people are Clinton supporters. Many of them have jobs that reward finding gender grievances in every news story.
“Trying to get [stuff] done while a man lurks disapprovingly behind you pretty much sums up womanhood,” tweeted Emma Gray, the executive women’s editor at the Huffington Post, with an image of Trump standing behind Clinton as she addressed a debate question. The war between the sexes is a writer’s beat, and men are the Axis.
In this world, comments about Clinton’s wardrobe are sexist. Ridiculing Trump’s absurd hair, orange skin and ill-fitting suits is just what normal people do. When Trump calls Clinton “Crooked Hillary,” he’s attacking women. When he calls Marco Rubio “Little Marco,” he’s just scoring political points. When he says Clinton lacks stamina, it’s misogyny. When he says Jeb Bush is low-energy, it’s campaign rhetoric. When Trump interrupts men, it’s rudeness, standard New York behavior or too much aggression. When he interrupts Clinton, it’s What Men Do to Women.
In a much-circulated Washington Post column, Petula Dvorak declared Clinton the representative of older women, who are “supposed to be invisible.” She wrote, “There’s misogyny, and then there’s the ageist misogyny that older women face. That undercurrent runs very deep in our culture, and it’s one of the reasons the haters hate Hillary Clinton so deeply.”
Dvorak’s article offered some evidence that older women outside of politics get a raw deal, but did little to demonstrate that those attitudes apply to Clinton or to female politicians more generally. Plenty of people detest Clinton, but they also detested her when she was a youthful first lady. Other older women in public life don’t attract the same loathing. California’s Senator Dianne Feinstein is 83 and seems to have been born matronly, yet she’s always been popular. Conservatives worshipped Margaret Thatcher, who was hardly an ingenue. Many people who hate Clinton also hate the Federal Reserve, but they don’t attack Janet Yellen for her appearance or question her age or probity.
“Drawing attention to [Clinton’s] looks or age is an implicit way to draw attention to her gender,” wrote Vox’s Liz Plank. Maybe. Writing countless articles about how she’s mistreated because she’s a woman is an explicit way of doing exactly the same thing.
Making Clinton the representative of Every Woman Ever may seem like good politics, especially against a guy like Trump, but turning every criticism of Clinton into evidence of misogyny strains credulity and harms serious political discussion. In the likely case that Clinton is elected president, it will make running harder for other women in the future by tainting them with all of Clinton’s flaws. It reduces a real person, with individual strengths and weaknesses, to the one and only representative of Women in Public Life, obscuring the achievements of other women.
Her supporters believe Clinton deserves admiration, respect and the highest office in the land by dint of her hard work. When USA Today editorial board members voiced reservations about “Clinton’s sense of entitlement,” Sarah Jones, the publisher and managing editor of the liberal website Politicus USA, went ballistic. The entitlement charge, she wrote, “is meaningless, a smear based on some notion that she should not feel entitled to run for office for some reason. Or that she is ambitious,” she wrote, calling the phrase “a dog whistle as loud as Republicans calling President Obama ‘boy,’ ‘uppity’ and ‘arrogant.’” Although hardly a controversial charge, given that Clinton’s selection as the Democrat nominee was widely termed a “coronation,” Jones deemed USA Today’s comment an example of “ugly sexism.”
Contrary to Jones’s spin, objecting to Clinton’s sense of entitlement is in no way a claim that she shouldn’t run at all. It simply questions the presumption that she should receive the nomination or win the presidency because of who she is — or because she’s checked all the right resume boxes, never mind whether she has the right character, vision or ideas.
The charge is also a nod to the elephant — or donkey — in the room, the thing we’re never, ever supposed to talk about: how Clinton gained the celebrity that fueled her candidacy.
Unlike Jeane Kirkpatrick, Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, or Samantha Power, Clinton rose to her high diplomatic office without notable foreign relations expertise. Having focused her career on women and children’s issues, she might have been a plausible candidate for health and human services secretary. Her qualifications for the more prestigious and high-profile State Department job came largely from having been married to a president. Her presidential resume, in turn, relies heavily on her experiences as secretary of state.
Yes, Clinton has worked hard. Yes, she has a head full of policy details. And maybe Bill Clinton wouldn’t have become president without her discipline backing him. But it’s not sexist to say her career in politics was made possible by her marriage to the right man. It’s not misogynist to observe that she has trouble making a positive case for her election that doesn’t depend on his presidency and her consequent fame. To many of us who’ve long looked forward to the first female president, it’s depressing to see a former first lady in that role, rather than a woman best known for her own achievements. Hillary Clinton is better than Donald Trump, but that’s a low standard — regardless of gender.