(Comment policy: In addition to my regular comment policy, I’m going to ask people to keep comments narrowly focused on the issues raised in this piece. This is not a platform to discuss everything else you do or don’t like about Clinton or Trump. This piece was originally published on AlterNet.)
It’s entirely reasonable to criticize Hillary Clinton. She’s running for President of the United States, after all. It’s an important job, and she should be subject to careful scrutiny. If she’s elected, she’s going to be representing all U.S. citizens: we should tell her what we want from her, and speak out when she lets us down.
But a significant amount of anti-Clinton criticism is loaded with sexism. It’s not just the obvious examples, like critiquing her clothing (women’s appearance is policed far more heavily than men’s), critiquing her voice (ditto), microanalyzing her gestures and mannerisms (ditto), sexualizing her, or targeting her with sexist and misogynist slurs. Much of the sexism against Hillary Clinton flies under the radar. On the surface, it looks like legitimate political commentary: the sexism underlying it is largely unconscious. But when you understand some of the ways sexism commonly plays out, it’s glaringly obvious. Here are seven examples.
1: Higher standards, double standards, and expecting perfection. A huge amount of venom gets aimed at Clinton for actions that are commonplace in U.S. national politics. The most obvious example: taking donations from corporations. Yes, big money in politics is a huge problem. It’s also extremely common, and it’s old news. Just about every elected official on a national level takes campaign donations from corporations. So why is Clinton the one getting raked over the coals about it? Why is Clinton the one who routinely gets called a Wall Street shill? The amount of hatred Clinton has received over this lousy but nearly universal feature of national politics is wildly disproportionate — especially since she’s campaigning for raising taxes on the rich and an overturn of the Citizens United ruling. Clinton’s foreign policy record also gets her excoriated as a warhawk, a genocidal murderer of children, with a degree of vitriol that somehow bypasses both President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. And there’s lots of all-or-nothing thinking about Clinton. Every mistake she’s made, every bad action she’s taken, is treated as proof that she’s bad to the bone and entirely unfit for office.
It would be baffling — except that professional women in almost every arena face this. We’re held to a higher standard than men. Any woman in professional or public life can expect her record to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb. Any flaws or mistakes will be magnified, noticed more and remembered longer — while our successes are attributed to luck.
If you object to Clinton’s policies and her record, by all means, say so. But why the venom? If you haven’t aimed this degree of hostility, mistrust, and contempt at other Democratic candidates and officials over corporate money or overly hawkish foreign policy — candidates and officials like Barack Obama, John Kerry, or Al Gore — why are you aiming it at Clinton? Of course “everyone else does it” isn’t a defense of bad actions. But it is a reason to question why some people get targeted with ten times more vitriol for the same bad actions.
2: Blaming her for things her husband did — or saying she’s riding his coattails. Hillary Clinton, oddly enough, is not the same person as Bill Clinton. She has her own political record: similar to Bill’s in some ways, different in others. She was a U.S. senator for eight years, Secretary of State for four. She had an extensive record of public service before her husband became Governor of Arkansas and President of the United States. Even as First Lady, she had her own political record: among other things, she pushed hard for a universal health care plan, and in the wake of that defeat, she succeeded in expanding health care coverage for children. And in the fifteen years since Bill left office, Hillary has established her own career, shaped her own policy positions — and built her own positive reputation in Washington, even among political opponents, for her prodigious knowledge, policy expertise, work ethic, tenacity, and ability to work with others.
Hillary Clinton has her own record. Yet many of her critics cite the flaws in Bill Clinton’s administration as reasons to oppose her. And her political successes are also attributed to her husband: her career has been described as “riding Bill’s coattails,” and in critiques of political families, she’s been given as an example of politicians “running their spouses for office.”
It’s all too common for married women to be treated as extensions of their husbands. This is doubly ironic when women are blamed for their husband’s failures, while their husbands get credit for their wives’ success — which is exactly what’s happening with Hillary Clinton. Bill’s bad acts are her responsibility; her successes are because of him. This particular form of sexism creates a huge obstacle for women running for office. As long as it continues, women who are married to politicians will never be able to enter politics without being considered suspect.
3: Ignoring her accomplishments, positions, and record. “Clinton is just another conservative!” Actually, her voting record in the Senate was very liberal, with a 93% overlap with Bernie Sanders and high ratings from the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO, the NAACP, the HRC, the National Organization for Women, and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “Clinton is just a Wall Street shill!” Actually, central features of Clinton’s campaign platform include closing tax loopholes on corporations, increased taxation of the rich, and campaign finance reform than includes an overturn of Citizens United. “Clinton is no different from Donald Trump!” Are you kidding? Reproductive rights, immigration rights, climate change, criminal justice reform, racial justice, TBQLG rights, education, gun control, a basic understanding of the workings of government, a basic respect for the Constitution, not being a literal fascist — the list of important differences between Clinton and Trump reaches to the moon and back.
It’s distressing to see how little resemblance there is between Clinton’s actual record and the pictures commonly painted of her. It’s especially distressing to see how many progressives and liberals have bought into the decades-long right-wing smear campaign against her. But it’s unsurprising to anyone familiar with sexism. Women in the workplace and in public life can expect to have our accomplishments and opinions ignored, diminished, and trivialized. (Sexist coverage of the Olympics is one of the most recent glaring examples.) What women say and do is often invisible, and it commonly takes a back seat to what men say and do — about themselves, and about us.
4: Saying she’s not passionate enough. Clinton is commonly criticized for not being passionate enough — especially by Sanders supporters, many of whom admired his passion and took it as a sign of authenticity and willingness to fight the system. But when it comes to expressing emotion, women in politics literally can’t win. If they’re too calm and controlled, they’re seen as cold and uncaring; if they’re too intense, they’re seen as over-emotional, out of control, and personally angry at you. At best, they have to walk an extremely fine tightrope between being “too emotional” and “not emotional enough.” At worst, there is literally no degree of emotional expression that will be acceptable. (If you want to see this in action, watch this scathingly hilarious video in which Jimmy Kimmel comically explains to Clinton how she can make herself more appealing.)
It cuts right to the heart of sexist gender expectations. Women are expected to be nurturing and emotional, and are policed when we’re not. But being nurturing and emotional are not commonly seen as desirable traits for high-level executive positions, such as President of the United States. Extensive research demonstrates that “women face distinct social penalties for doing the very things that lead to success.” To quote Deborah Tannen, “While the qualities expected of a good leader (be forceful, confident and, at times, angry) are similar to those we expect of a good man, they are the opposite of what we expect of a good woman (be gentle, self-deprecating and emotional, but not angry).” Women in politics are damned if they do and dammed if they don’t.
5: Calling her dishonest. It’s ironic. Clinton has been ranked as one of the most honest candidates in the 2016 presidential race. Yet one of the most common critiques she faces is that she’s dishonest — critiques ranging from “There’s something I just don’t trust about her,” to “She’s a shill for Wall Street who’s lining her pockets,” to “SHE LITERALLY MURDERED EVERYONE WHO WAS IN HER WAY!”
It’s ironic. But it makes perfect sense when you look at stereotypes of women. Women who aren’t perfectly nurturing wives and mothers are commonly seen as scheming, manipulative liars. This is notably true for women in positions of power, especially women in politics. It’s a classic way of discrediting women, and dismissing what we say and do.
6: Calling her a queen, calling her election a coronation, or insisting her election had to have been fraudulent. There are serious problems with elections in the United States. No, the 2016 Democratic primary was not rigged: even Sanders and Sanders’ press secretary say it wasn’t, that theory doesn’t even make sense. But among many other problems, the state-by-state patchwork of election laws is confusing — for candidates, election workers, and voters. And this works to the advantage of party insiders who are intimately familiar with the election machinery.
This is a problem. It was a problem in 2004, when John Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president. It was a problem in 2000, when Al Gore was the nominee. It was a problem in 1992 and 1996, when it was Bill Clinton; in 1988 when it was Michael Dukakis; in 1984 when it was Walter Mondale. To the best of this reporter’s knowledge, none of these nominees had the validity of their election widely questioned by progressives and liberals; none was regularly called a king; and none had their primary election commonly referred to as a coronation.
One of the most common forms of sexism is to treat women’s achievements as fraudulent. Despite the uphill climb women face due to sexist bias, women’s accomplishments are more likely to be seen as unearned, as gained by manipulation, nepotism (see #2 above, “riding Bill’s coattails”), the supposedly unfair advantage of affirmative action, or flat-out fraud. And despite the many advantages created by sexist bias, men’s accomplishments are more likely to be seen as having been earned. The sexism behind calling Clinton a fraud is similar to the racism behind the claim that Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen: rather than critiquing the candidate on their strengths and weaknesses, it questions the validity of their holding the office at all.
7: Saying women only support her because she’s a woman. Many, many women have made detailed arguments for why they’re supporting Clinton, citing policy positions and voting records and her record as Secretary of State — only to be told, “You’re just voting for her because she’s a woman.” And when women express any excitement over the first major-party nomination of a woman for President of the United States, or any pride about this enormous achievement in centuries of struggle against sexist oppression, the excitement and pride often gets interpreted the same way: “You’re just voting for her because she’s a woman.”
This is flatly sexist. It directly uses Clinton’s gender as an excuse to ignore her accomplishments, her skills, her record, her goals, all the reasons people have for backing her. And it’s not just sexist against Clinton: it’s sexist against the millions of women who support her. To quote myself: Hillary Clinton is probably one of the most closely scrutinized people in U.S. politics. There has been a decades-long right-wing smear campaign against her (much of which has been bought into by the left), and every mistake she’s ever made has been examined with a spotlight and a high-powered microscope. Assuming that women who support her are unaware of her record, both positive and negative, is absurd — and it’s sexist.
None of this is saying that Clinton shouldn’t be criticized. It will probably be read that way, but that’s not what this is saying. During this campaign, and if she’s elected president, she will no doubt do things that are disappointing and even enraging to progressives — including the people who support her. When that happens, people will speak out, and we should. As citizens, that’s our job. I’ve criticized her myself, quite harshly. But let’s remember the unconscious sexism that underlies so much criticism of women in the workplace and in the public eye. And when we criticize Clinton, let’s make sure it’s fair, proportionate, and based in reality.