Sexist Attacks Against Hillary Clinton Are About To Get Uglier — And Maybe That's OK
Back in April 2015, when Hillary Clinton first announced that she was running for president, my ideas about what her path toward the nomination might look like were basically fan fiction. Back then, I had never heard of Bernie Sanders, and to me, Donald Trump was just some reality TV buffoon who went around acting like owning a few buildings and having a cameo in Home Alone 2 made him Louis XIV the Sun King. I imagined that the road to the White House would probably involve Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush unreeling the kind of intensely conservative policies on immigration or healthcare that can sound less harsh when delivered in a genteel way. I feared that this sort of thing could push Clinton's proposed policies to the right in pursuit of swing voters, as it had at points in her 2008 campaign.
And I assumed that, over the course of her candidacy, I would have a few tense conversations with well-meaning friends who would take Clinton's nomination as a sign that feminism's work was completed and we could all move on to talk about something else, as though feminism were an under-construction highway that would eventually be finished and then blend seamlessly into the environment, and we'd soon forget that it hadn't always been there.
I, like most people who were engaging in political prognostication in April 2015, was completely wrong. Trump's promise to Make America Hate Again has taken him farther than I could have imagined in my worst fever dream. And though I have never personally felt the Bern, I, like many observers, do believe that Sanders' campaign has helped shape Clinton's proposed policies by showing the world that Democrats are with this party because we actually believe in liberal values, not because we just happen to accidentally not be Republicans.
But perhaps the thing I would have least anticipated over a year ago, when I wrote a half-cheeky, half-serious essay about how I would vote for Clinton because she was a woman, is that almost no one seems to be making the case that Clinton's candidacy is a sign that feminism's work is complete.
As Obama's election made so many white people hyper aware of the fact that they were no longer the de facto ruling class in all situations, Clinton's nomination will have a similar effect, opening the door for more aggressive sexism nationwide to be exposed as the problem it is.
In my tiny, lefty corner of the political universe, conversations about the election haven't really had much to do with gender thus far. They've had to do with student loan debt, healthcare, how long the country can sustain a depressingly large class divide, and the true meaning of liberalism (yes, our cocktail parties are super fun). But no matter how deeply you're ensconced in your own political subculture, it's been impossible to ignore the sexism flung in Clinton's direction, by both her opponents and by media pundits in general.
Some of it is eye-poppingly blatant — like Trump's "woman card" crack ("She’s got nothing else going ... And frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get five percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card. And the beautiful thing is women don’t like her, okay?") or journalist Bob Woodward's claim that Clinton's unpopularity with younger voters was due to the "screaming stuff" she did during debates (because younger voters could only possibly be making their choices based on the tone of her voice and not, like, her policies or anything). And there is, of course, always the gendered insults flung her way on Twitter (if you're afraid your day has been going a little too well, take a moment to search "Hillary" + "bitch" or "shrill" on social media).
But some of the sexism thrown Clinton's way has been a bit more low-key, too. Like David Brooks' May 24 New York Times column, "Why Is Clinton Disliked?" The essay explores essentially every possible reason besides sexism for the results of a Washington Post / ABC News poll in which 57 percent of respondents said they had an unfavorable view of Clinton. Yet many of the reasons Brooks picks out for her supposed unlikability (like her supposed workaholism) are generally seen as assets rather than drawbacks for male politicians. Brooks philosophizes that he knows what "so many have against her":
I would begin my explanation with this question: Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun? We know what Obama does for fun — golf, basketball, etc." He goes on to note "People who work closely with her adore her and say she is warm and caring. But it’s hard from the outside to think of any non-career or pre-career aspect to her life.
None of that is too unexpected, of course. (Though I'd like to note, for the record, that I was somehow able to vote for Obama twice without ever knowing his exact stance re: golf.) When women are powerful, a certain segment of the population will always be interested in slamming them with sexist put-downs about their looks, mannerisms, or simply how much more appealing they'd be if they just kept their mouths closed a bit more.
But the part that has been unexpected is how much mainstream media coverage has been given to calling out the sexist lobs against Clinton. Some publications have even launched investigations into it (as The Washington Post did when it engaged in a detailed data analysis of the gendered words used to describe Clinton on Twitter). After Woodward's "screaming" comment, CNN published an op-ed by former producer and current political columnist Frida Ghitis that took him, as well as anyone else critiquing Clinton based on her tone rather than her words, to task. "The same arguments used to criticize Clinton (and millions of women who are trying to advance) are seen as attributes for men."
Around the same time, a Washington Post piece by Dana Milbank examined the double standard Clinton faces when it comes to how she expresses herself on the campaign trail, quoting Time's Jay Newton-Small, who said, “It is a subtle kind of sexism that exists that we don’t recognize ... When women raise their voices, people tend to get their hackles up.”
And Brooks' column was met with a universal eye roll — not just from feminist and progressive publications and websites, or publications explicitly focused on politics like The Washington Post , but also from less traditionally political publications like GQ as well. Plenty of publications oriented toward a conservative audience thought that Brooks barely scratched the surface of how unlikable Clinton is, of course. But the fact that the conversation in mainstream media has been about not just how silly Brooks' conclusions are, but also how sexist they are, means something.
It seems that almost no one with credibility is trying to claim that sexism isn't an issue in this election. No one is trying to convince us that simply getting a woman on the presidential ticket is the end of the line. And that's a very good thing.
If nothing else, I think a sexist pile-on will be a teachable moment.
It's impossible, of course, to ponder the relationship between Clinton's candidacy and sexism without thinking about the relationship between Barack Obama's presidency and racism. In the lead-up to Obama taking the Oval Office, many of us hoped that this would deal some kind of killing blow to American racism. Instead, as Jamelle Bouie wrote in Slate, "The Obama era didn’t herald a post-racial America as much as it did a racialized one, where millions of whites were hyperaware of and newly anxious about their racial status." Bouie then went on to examine studies which seemed to show that "Obama’s election seems to have exacerbated racial animus among white voters." As Obama himself said in an interview on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast, "Racism. We are not cured of it ... It's not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don't overnight completely erase everything that happened 200-300 years prior."
That's not to say that there hasn't been any progress made against racism during Obama's administration — but rather, there hasn't been as much progress as we might have hoped. There isn't an exact parallel between race and gender, of course. But I do wonder if, as Obama's election made so many white people hyper aware of the fact that they were no longer the de facto ruling class in all situations, Clinton's nomination will have a similar effect, opening the door for more aggressive sexism nationwide.
Not only is Clinton's presumptive nomination not proof that sexism is over, but I'm personally bracing myself for much, much worse displays of sexism in the months to come. I mean, look at the virulently sexist reactions to the new Ghostbusters film's female stars — and we're talking about female versions of fictional characters who run around shooting made-up science rays at giant marshmallow creatures. Imagine what those same people will do when they find out that a woman might not just become their sci-fi movie hero, but their president. One can only imagine what's about to happen when she faces Trump on the debate stage, but it's definitely going to be much more toxic than implying that she's boring because she works too hard.
However, if nothing else, I think a sexist pile-on will be a teachable moment. When I think of Clinton's campaign, I often think of how, as a child, my teachers told me that anyone can be president. Of course, even as a first-grader, I knew this was BS — a quick glance at the mass-produced presidential portraits that lined our classroom showed that only one very specific type of "everyone" should even bother trying. I go back to this memory when I think of today's youngest women watching this campaign, and how they'll simultaneously be watching the first serious presidential run mounted by a woman and be exposed to some of the foulest sexism out there, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
I hope that we can explain to them what's happening, and why — some people hate women, and a lot of the time, that hate hurts. Most of all, I hope we teach them that ultimately, that hate can't stop us.