Note: A condensed version of this appears in Politico.
The biggest obstacle any woman has faced and will continue to face in aspiring to the highest office in any country, at any time in history is that she is not a man. I know—duh. But the reality is that we haven’t yet begun to comprehend, let alone address, everything that flows from that seemingly simple fact. French philosopher Simone deBeauvoir remains the expert on it. In every era, in every culture, she pointed out, Man is the norm, and Woman is defined in terms of her difference from that norm. She may be reviled, she may be revered, but she is always judged by standards that are “special” to her sex, while the fact that men have a sex, too, goes unnoticed.
Here’s a banal but telling example: the suit was as much a uniform for the male politicians that Hillary Clinton competed against as it was for her. But for Clinton, the “pantsuit” was mocked (or cherished by some pro-Clinton feminists) as a special signature item. And here’s a non-banal one: while we accept it as “normal” when male politicians shout, interrupt, hog the stage, or aggressively interrogate, when Hillary raised her voice it was described as “screeching” and both Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris were told to shut up when they claimed too much time on the Senate floor. In February, Warren was famously rebuked by Mitch McConnell (“She was warned…nevertheless she persisted”) when, during confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, she read a critical letter from Coretta Scott King. (Male senators later read the same letter without being cut off.) In July, Richard Burr ordered Harris to be silent and lectured her about her lack of “courtesy” for not allowing poor Sessions to ramble on evasively as she questioned him during the Senate Intelligence Committee into Russian interference in the 2016 election. (No one, as I recall, took Trey Gowdy or any others to task when they hammered away at Clinton during the Benghazi hearings.)
Beauvoir called this normalization of male behavior and singling out of women for special notice the “woman as Other”—and it’s especially pronounced when it comes to our norms, visual images, and expectations of the head of state. The female in charge is still so remarkable—even, apparently, in countries that have had women Queens for centuries—that women who aspire to or hold higher office tend to get glommed together by virtue of their sex. Theresa May has been described as “the new Hillary Clinton”—but also as “the British Angela Merkel” and “another Iron Lady,” referring to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Forget any ideological differences between Clinton, Thatcher, Merkel and May. They are all women leaders, “such rare creatures that they can only be understood through the prism of one another.”
Pictured: Helen Mirren as Elizabeth I in the 2005 miniseries.
It’s no wonder that Elizabeth I felt it crucial to convince her subjects that although she was a woman, she had the “heart and stomach of a King.” But Elizabeth also realized that there was danger lurking in presenting herself as too “masculine” (and thus seen as “unnatural”—a special problem for her, as she remained unmarried and childless) and took care to promote herself as a loving, maternal figure, too, with all English subjects as her children. Instinctively, she recognized that being the “other” in a masculinist world was not escapable, only negotiable.
It’s a class double bind. To command authority requires demonstrating that you’ve got cahones; but to win the affection of subjects/voters one can’t be seen as too self-contained or in control—qualities that translate as “cold” in a woman. So, when Hillary Clinton teared up in a New Hampshire coffee shop after losing the 2008 Idaho primary, reporters declared that “the icy control queen” had finally “proved that she is human.” (She went on to win the New Hampshire primary.) Obama has wiped away tears on several occasions; it’s never seen as proof of his humanity (which has never been questioned, even when he is being his most professorial.) And almost unquestionably, if Clinton had actually spilled over with tears rather than simply welled up, her competency for office—especially as commander-in-chief—would have been questioned.
It’s depressing to recognize that any future contender will have to navigate some version of this double bind, not just because it is unfair (and not a very useful way to assess a candidates’ capability for office) but because it is virtually impossible to successfully walk that tightrope. And sadly for progressives, conservative female politicians may do better at it, because they come already validated ideologically as friends of the “male” world (via their gun-approving, tough-on-crime, aggressively anti-“woman card” stances) while also usually equipped with many children and ostentatious “family values.
Pictured from left to right: Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher; Julia Gillard and Hillary Clinton; Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel.
Another factor that thus far has hurt progressive women politicians like Hillary Clinton is their feminism. Women may be “other,” but we apparently aren’t comfortable when that fact is called out and criticized. Women who have managed to get themselves elected have either disclaimed the label of “feminist”—Meir and Thatcher—or equivocated, as Merkel has, acknowledging “common ground” but not wanting “to adorn myself with these feathers.” So far, only Australia’s Julia Gillard was able to denounce the sexism of her opponent Tony Abbott—as well as deliver “a forthright attack on misogyny in public life”—and receive widespread acclaim.
Perhaps, however, the publication of Hillary Clinton’s What Happened will encourage some fresh recognition of—or at the very least, conversation about—the role that gendered double-standards and double-binds continue to play in American political (and not only political) life. During the election itself, any calling-out of the overt misogyny of much of the political rhetoric, or of the absence of media coverage of sexist double standards or stereotypes was shushed (by some on the left as well as the right) with scorn for “playing the woman card.” Now, however, despite being urged to go away and let the democrats fumble along as though gender doesn’t exist, Clinton has refused to be silent about it. And with that refusal, she may force us all to confront what must be acknowledged and challenged before the next election is permitted to simply play it out yet again.