Five Ways Sexism Colors Public Perception of Hillary Clinton

Photo by Mike Mozart (Creative Commons)

My partner, who studies public policy, calls this time of the election cycle “the mean season.” It’s that time when campaigns begin their final push to win over primary voters and caucusgoers as the nomination process for each party crystallizes. My social media feeds devolve into a mix of campaign spin for this candidate or that, heralding of each day’s must-read thinkpiece, and an equal number of posts from friends beseeching each other to stop posting about the campaigns. Whatever friendliness the Sanders and Clinton campaigns had for each other last summer, their staffs have dug in their heels and the serious fighting has begun within the Democratic Party.

One of the issues playing out this primary cycle is how sexism affects our understanding of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is enacting this sexism, and to what degree. I think it’s important to understand, amid the current hostility of both Democratic front-runners’ campaigns, that we only know Ms. Clinton through a sexist lens. Sexism is ingrained in the way we think about Clinton—yes, even for self-described feminists and progressives, sexism colors the way we see Hillary. First, let’s look at the history of attacks against her.

Hillary Clinton’s looks have always faced sharp scrutiny. Way back in 1988, when she was First Lady of Arkansas, a syndicated piece ran about her with the headline “Hillary: The good, the bad, the dress size.” During Bill’s presidential campaign, right-leaning media outlets made remarks about her hair style and a headband she wore on a 60 Minutes interview, an apparent fashion faux pas that people commented on for more than a year. By 1995 she even joked, “If I want to knock a story off the front page, I just change my hair style.” Because she had a law degree and her own career, right-wing pundits wondered openly how she would have power beyond the more behind-the-scenes duties of other First Ladies. She confirmed their fears when she took the lead of a task force to establish universal health care coverage, a platform Bill had campaigned on. “When that plan went down to defeat, many people assigned her a large share of the blame,” said Paul Starr, a senior health policy adviser in the Clinton White House.

When Newsweek ran a cover story about how Bill turned to her for advice on a nominee that required Senate confirmation (the shock of the leader of the free world asking a woman for advice!), the magazine presumed that this was a sign of his weakness and her overreach—even calling her “First Lady Plus.” Several media outlets questioned whether Hillary was, in effect, an unelected second President. Martin Amis, writing for The Sunday Times of London, encapsulated many of these criticisms and labels in his scathing review of her book It Takes a Village:

Newt Gingrich called her a bitch. Rush Limbaugh called her a feminazi. One New York weekly called her a scumbag. William Safire, in The New York Times, called her a congenital liar. And the President himself, it is rumoured, calls her the First Liability. Rumour goes on to add that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a communist and a carpetbagger, a wowser and a fraud, a floozie and a dyke. It has been repeatedly suggested that she had an affair with her financial conspirator Vincent Foster, who died, mysteriously, in 1993. At this stage, we don't want to know whether Hillary slept with Vincent Foster. We want to know if she killed him.

When the Whitewater scandal unfolded in 1992, the media showed difficulty in distinguishing between Bill’s and Hillary’s actions related to that company’s failure. Even as multiple, separate investigations ran for years, none found a connection between Bill’s or Hillary’s stake in Whitewater and the illegal loans and fraud that convicted their partners, Susan and James McDougal. Whitewater became an umbrella term for whatever other scandal the far right attempted to attach to her, whether it be Filegate, Travelgate, the suicide of Vince Foster, the Benghazi attack, or her use of a private email server when she served as Secretary of State. This is why some have pointed out that dismissing Hillary Clinton as being “untrustworthy” or “corrupt” is problematic—because these labels don’t necessarily point to real evidence against her. Instead, they are born of reactionary rhetoric used to marginalize her politically and to distract people from the last thirty years of failed Republican domestic and foreign policies.

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Then there are the copious insensitive remarks people made about her each time news broke about another affair of Bill’s. She is, after all, the eponymous “good wife” who inspired a long-running CBS series (also, as her email dump revealed, she’s a fan).

I’m not saying that Hillary Clinton is incapable of corruption, but it behooves me to mention this: In thirty years of intense searching for corruption, nothing concrete has been found. It’s possible that Clinton has some very good friends in the Democratic Party to protect her, but many of these investigations have been conducted by people with no party allegiance or who have outright hostility to the party, including Kenneth Starr and Representative Trey Gowdy, the persistent investigator into the Benghazi attacks.

Hillary Clinton speaking in front of a UN meeting in 2011. Photo by Eric Bridiers/State Department.

Conspiracy theories are fascinating—if you’d like to lose a whole afternoon, read up on the theories behind Vince Foster’s death—but they’re as unrealistic and empty as believing in UFOs and Area 51. Applying them to whether Clinton is a good candidate for the White House is ultimately offensive. For example, the “coin toss” gotcha moment from the Iowa Caucus that turned out to be satire but was taken as fact is a direct extension of these earlier accusations against her character, predicated on the assertion that she is capable of rigging an election (and one that she didn’t even need to win, like the Iowa caucus).

That history and context frames our current understanding of her. But here are five other ways I see sexism playing into our understanding of Hillary Clinton:

• Sexism limits how she speaks, behaves in public, and dresses

Even as she’s tried to make fun of her favored blue pantsuits, she’s not allowed to yell or ramble, as Sanders does, lest she be viewed as “aggressive.” More recently, even though she carefully avoided declaring victory the night of the Iowa caucus, instead saying she was breathing a sigh of relief, many people interpreted her words as just such a declaration and then disparaged her by calling her a liar. If this is the meme on people’s Facebook feeds, then we are nowhere near a substantive conversation leading into a critical election.

• Sexism dismisses her experience

Eight years as the Senator from New York, four years as Secretary of State, eight years as First Lady, and decades of work on minor’s rights (she worked on clarifying the law around emancipated minor statuses) and women’s rights—and instead of talking about how this positions her to serve well on both domestic and foreign policy issues, The Washington Post ponders if her experience is “a liability.” And in part she is framed as having too much history because…

• Sexism insists on linking her to Bill Clinton’s weaknesses

Clinton herself has tried to tie her potential presidency to her husband’s successes, like the economic growth of the 1990s, which is difficult without also taking on his disastrous 1996 welfare reform law, his failed trade policies, and his abominable “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy for military personnel. But linking women to their husbands is a tried-and-true sexist practice that discounts women’s autonomy and reinforces outmoded ways of thinking about compulsory heterosexuality and male authority. Using Bill Clinton’s administration to demarcate how Hillary would perform as president is patently sexist, and undermines the concept of a critical approach: that a person who is being careful on the issues may shift her stance over time. Obama was applauded when he “evolved” on marriage, so it’s not like there isn’t a recent precedent for changing one’s mind. Also, Clinton has effectively pushed Sanders more to the left on his gun control policy, so why isn’t he being castigated as a weak flip-flopper?

• Sexism hypercriticizes women for things men do with impunity

She receives too much money from Wall Street, critics argue. The numbers add up to approximately 7.2 percent of the funds backing Clinton, to her campaign, and to the outside super PAC groups (which she doesn’t control). That far surpasses Bernie Sanders’ donations from financial groups—he disavows super PACS and has received only $47,187 from the securities and investment industry—but it’s far, far short of the dollars and percentages given to several of her GOP rivals. We still should ask: is it sexist to single out Clinton on grounds that should mark many of her colleagues? Perhaps the Sanders campaign would take a similar tack against, say, Ted Cruz, if they each receive their party’s nominations?

• Sexism rejects pragmatism as less significant than idealism

In 2007, progressives were swept up in Barack Obama’s campaign of “hope and change” and “yes we can,” and were not excited by Clinton’s more practical “ready to lead” message. In 2016, Sanders’s mantra is about a “political revolution” in contrast with the pragmatism of the Clinton camp, so it feels like the same dynamic at play. But why is pragmatism marked as bad or lesser than idealism, especially after seven years of such extreme congressional gridlock that we’ve endured a multi-week government shutdown and more than fifty votes to overturn the Affordable Care Act—except that it is Hillary Clinton’s approach?

•  •  •

My point here is not that you should vote for Hillary Clinton. This is not an ALL CAPS decree that she’d be a good president—everyone should decide for themselves who they want to vote for. But when reading about the candidates during this mean season, we should keep in mind how gender affects criticism. Clinton’s political tenure and time as Secretary of State should certainly be held to high standards, as she is seeking the highest political office in the country. There are very legitimate questions to ask of her campaign around, say, Middle East foreign policy—how have the most recent events in Syria affected her earlier ideas about responding to their crisis, or what is her plan with Vladimir Putin’s aggressive annexation of eastern Ukraine? How does she plan to differentiate her administration’s priorities from those of President Obama? What is her plan for bringing Congress back into a working relationship with the White House? Can she (or any presidential candidate) articulate an intersectional political agenda and a plan for bringing those priorities to the Executive Branch? I would love to see the candidates get down to brass tacks as they’ve done in some of the earlier debates.

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by Everett Maroon
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Everett Maroon is a memoirist, essayist, and fiction writer originally from New Jersey and now living in Walla Walla, Washington. His blog is and he tweets at @EverettMaroon.

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1 Comment Has Been Posted

Excellent, thank you for writing this.

So much of what I read about the democratic candidates in venues targeting millennials and younger people seems to be filled with defensive arguments promoting Sanders, because one doesn't want to vote for Clinton 'just' because she is female. It is refreshing to read a young author who does not place Hillary's gender as something to overcome if she is to be voted for: i.e "I'm not voting for her JUST because she is a woman" places her gender as a barrier that has to be conquered. Thank you for describing the sexism that underlies much of the criticism of her experience and thoughtfulness.

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