If you're plugged into the presidential campaign news cycle — and at this point, if issues of feminism, sexism, bigotry, and equality are central to you, there's a pretty great chance you're paying attention — then you probably heard about what happened to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton over the weekend. Namely, she got sick. Not so shocking when you put it that way, huh? Here's the thing: Clinton's pneumonia diagnosis has become a feminist issue in this campaign, or at the very minimum, an issue where some pernicious, sexist double-standards are on full display.
Conjure this image in your mind: an otherwise robust male presidential candidate, in possession of a clean bill of overall health from their doctor and keeping a furious campaign schedule, falls ill in the waning months of the presidential race. It isn't gravely serious, however — though some types of pneumonia can be very serious for some people, especially as they grow older. The candidate doesn't feel that bad, was keeping a full schedule already, and is promptly put on antibiotics. And while he's advised to get some rest, he also feels well enough to keep going.
The election is in less than two months, the 15th anniversary of 9/11 is just days away, and this gray-haired elder statesman used to represent the state of New York in the U.S. Senate. So obviously, he can't miss that memorial, right? You can see the headlines now: "Former Senator Takes Sick Day, Misses 9/11 Memorial." So he sticks it out, can't quite endure the exertion, and gets a little faint. Not the first time it's happened and it won't be the last.
Look, ultimately, if you're of the mind that Clinton should've taken some time off immediately following her diagnosis last week, that's all well and good — in no way should this be taken to say "don't take appropriate care when you get sick." It's just worth considering how differently this story might have been told if any of the following things had been true:
- If Clinton were a man and she pushed through a non-critical, natural human illness, it would have been viewed as a sign of strength. But instead, because she's a woman, the very fact that she got sick has been viewed as a validation of her perceived weakness.
- If sexist double-standards didn't lead some people to doubt a 68-year-old woman's lightly disclosed health history. Mind you, these same people took a 70-year-old man's farcical doctor's note at face value — one which read like it was written by a middle-schooler on a deadline. (Dr. Harold Bornstein has claimed he wrote the letter in five minutes, and didn't proofread it.)
- The Trump campaign has been spreading conspiracy theories about her health, then Clinton probably felt as though taking an entirely reasonable few days off would stir up speculations and suspicions. Simply put, if you spent months claiming that somebody is secretly sick, you're going to strike gold at some point because people get sick!
Simply put, there's a pernicious stereotype in effect here, about the frailty of women. And in particular, a morbid fascination on the part of the American right (and some on the far-left, too) with the idea that Clinton is being propped up by handlers and staffers. On CNN International, veteran journalist Christiane Amanpour made the case for Clinton — she clearly knows something about what it takes for a woman to climb to the highest ranks of her field:
But surely this can't be a case of a human being having an off day. Nope like so many things Hillary, the media are having a field day, off to the races with another debilitating case of indignant outrage. This must be another typical Clinton conspiracy to fool them with a total transparency break down. Talk about a transparency break down, what about Donald Trump's tax returns — where are they? Can't a girl have a sick day or two? Don't get me started because when it comes to overqualified women having to try a hundred times harder than unqualified men to get a break or even a level playing field, well, we know that story.
By contrast, consider how Trump has behaved to this point. He hasn't really released any serious medical information, and this week he's already backtracking on releasing his records, despite having openly badgered Clinton to release more on Twitter, and boasted that he had no problem doing so. If there's a candidate who's now behaving suspiciously about their health, it's not Clinton — her campaign has promised to release more information about her health soon, and since double-standards don't allow them to brazenly change course as freely as Trump does, you can bet they're actually going to put something out.
Make no mistake: while it's not necessarily sexist to want more medical information from the candidates, everything that's transpired in this particular story has been filled with gendered stereotypes and double-standards.