The New Republic recently published a lengthy editorial about Hillary Clinton, which claimed that the best thing she could do for her presidential campaign would be to ditch Bill: “We weren’t advocating for divorce, per se. Let’s just say that we were speculating about ways that she might meaningfully disassociate herself, professionally and politically, from her ever-lovin’ husband, the man who, during the course of her recently concluded campaign, had made more trouble than he was worth.”
From a policy standpoint, this kind of argument is certainly expected. The “for better or worse” aspect of political marriages such as the Clintons mean that Bill’s gaffes and screw-ups will always be yoked to Hillary, even if she had little or nothing to do with them.
But considering the many more pressing issues Hillary Clinton should focus on in her campaign for president (such as tackling police brutality, for instance, immigration reform, or getting behind the $15 minimum wage), reducing Clinton’s entire political career to what she does with her “ever lovin’ husband” is reductive and sexist, and it’s a trend that speaks to a larger cultural problem of how we judge powerful women not by their ethics, actions, or what they stand for, but by their relationships to men.
Hillary should have divorced Bill its one thing cheating.Having your daughter know all the DETAILS! Cigars! Total Humiliation!— JustHavToSay (@PattiFranzone) January 23, 2013
@caulkthewagon My grandmother told my mom that she won't vote for Hillary Clinton because she read that Bill isn't Chelsea's real father— Jonathan "Boo and Vote" Cohn (@JonathanCohn) April 25, 2015
Similar to the hoards of commentary we can expect to read in the next 18 months about Hillary’s wardrobe choices, hairstyles, wrinkles, and how she doesn’t tip at Chipotle (nobody does!), editorials like the New Republic’s will persist in looking at and critiquing Hillary through a different lens than how we view men, and this is a legitimate disservice, not just to Hillary, but to women everywhere.
A recent study called “Keys to Elected Office: The Essential Guide for Women,” which gathered data from all U.S. gubernatorial campaigns by women over the last 15 years, found that, unsurprisingly, we hold women candidates to higher standards than we do men.
It’s a trend that speaks to a larger cultural problem of how we judge powerful women not by their ethics, actions, or what they stand for, but by their relationships to men.
Furthermore, decades of social science research has shown that the more successful a woman is, the less “likable” she is perceived to be. This gender inverse has been illustrated by psychologists like Susan Fiske at Princeton, Amy Cuddy at Harvard, Madeline Heilman at NYU, Laurie Rudman at Rutgers, Peter Glick at Lawrence University, and more.
Another example of the particular handicap that is “politicking while female” can be seen in regard to the second most powerful woman in politics, Elizabeth Warren. In her recent profile in the New Yorker, Harry Reid said of the senator: “Her No. 1 quality is that great smile she has. It’s true. She’s very disarming.” Her great smile! Let her tombstone one day read, “Here lies Elizabeth Warren. She had nice teeth.”
Of course, women in politics must also contend with an absurd balancing act of appearances. She must be assertive but not “bitchy,” confident but not arrogant, attractive but not too attractive, and above all, to never exhibit any human emotions, because as evidenced by a recent viral Facebook post from a female CEO in Texas, lady hormones lead to unnecessary wars! Cheryl Rios, head of Go Ape Marketing, wrote that Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be president because “with the hormones we have, there is no way we should be able to start a war.”
Rios is far from alone in her convictions about women in power, and it’s not just randos on Facebook who exhibit these kinds of sexist remarks. Time magazine declared that Hillary Clinton is the “perfect” age to be president, because she is postmenopausal and “biologically primed” (!!!) to lead. OK, sure, but tell us, Time, how is her smile?
Discussion of powerful women’s appearances, age, likability, and their marriages all serve as more white noise to distract us from the real issues at stake in our country and in our government. Even as TNR’s editorial lists Hillary’s many accomplishments, aspirations, and how she “has been an electric symbol for female insurgence and independence from the moment she stepped into a national spotlight,” the implication of her marriage as the deciding factor in her campaign reinforces the long-standing tradition of tolerating women in the spotlight, but only in the role of wife and mother.
This is a legitimate disservice, not just to Hillary, but to women everywhere.
Of course, Hillary Clinton brands herself this way as well. Her Twitter bio reads: “Wife, mom, grandma, women+kids advocate, FLOTUS, Senator, SecState, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, 2016 presidential candidate.” Her role as presidential candidate is almost an afterthought. Not that we don’t appreciate the subtle humor of “pantsuit aficionado,” but way to bury the lede, Hillary.
Culturally, we are very uncomfortable with powerful women, and the reasons we focus on easy proclamations such as pantsuits and “stand by your man” credos are partly fueled by this discomfort. Powerful women disrupt our expectations of how we feel women should behave, both in public and in private. It’s no surprise that Hillary Clinton is often portrayed as “masculine” and a “ballbuster,” because her leadership alone is a deviation from the social gender script we’re used to.
Indeed, even in 2015, women’s participation in politics is still considered something of an anomaly, as women make up only about 20 percent of the House and the Senate.
Election season keeps getting longer and longer, and we can no doubt expect to read countless more op-eds criticising Hillary and her campaign. That’s politics, and Hillary is far from the perfect candidate, but focusing on asides like her marriage, her age, and her resting bitch face obscures the deeply problematic issues we are facing in the U.S. Americans would be far better served by an informed conversation about, oh, I don’t know, Hillary’s policies, than another conversation about how she is doomed to forever foot the Bill.
Anna Pulley has been the Managing Editor of the East Bay Express, the Arts and Culture Editor at SF Weekly, the Social Media and Communications Fellow at Mother Jones, and has written about everything from bars and restaurants to news to theater to sex toys. She has also written for RedEye Chicago, AfterEllen, the Toast, San Francisco magazine, BuzzFeed, AlterNet, the Bay Citizen, Salon, and the Rumpus.
Photo via DonkeyHotey/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)