With the increasing likelihood that Hillary Clinton will amass enough delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination comes the growing excitement of seeing the first female presidential nominee of a major political party – as well as our country’s first female president come November.
Unfortunately, it has not been without solemn reminders of the very challenges that Clinton, like many other trailblazing women, has overcome to get where she is today. Even as she is poised to break the “ultimate glass ceiling,” the increasingly casual misogyny that highlights the realities for ambitious women today demands all of our attention.
Our collective views about women in leadership have certainly changed over the course of the 20th century; however, disparities persist both on a social and institutional level. In a Pew Research Center survey, although 69 percent of respondents said men and women make equally good political leaders, 21 percent, said they believe men make better political leaders.
This phenomenon doesn’t happen in a vacuum and has real impacts. It is no coincidence in this gendered environment women account for less than 20 percent – 19.4 percent – of this current Congress, which places the United States as 33rd of 49 high-income countries for proportion of women serving in national legislatures.
To deny or understate current attitudes and obstacles unique to female leaders, especially as they have manifested themselves in Clinton’s campaign, is a mischaracterization at best and damaging at its actual worst, perpetuating the very problem.
Some argue part of what makes this 21st century sexism and misogyny so subversive is that it is difficult to recognize. However, it is in fact extremely easy to recognize. Ask any ambitious young woman how it feels to hear a former senator and secretary of state be called “unqualified,” (I’ll tell you: sad.) Rather, we chose not to acknowledge it, and through silence presume it is acceptable, when it is not.
Many say that we have even seen improvements from Hillary’s 2008 campaign, when a heckler shouted “Iron my shirt” in the middle of one of her speeches in New Hampshire. For evidence of misogyny in 2016, consider TV journalist Joe Scarborough, he said in a tweet that Clinton should “smile” during a speech after a series of big wins on March 15.
However well intended or unconscious, this has never been asked of any of the male candidates. Other accusations include “yelling” – although there are more than a few loud male candidates, for whom raising their voices invokes passion rather than shrillness. Last week, Time magazine ran a cover picture of Ted Cruz with the caption “Likeable enough?” – a question that has been asked about Clinton from the beginning, while Cruz is arguably the least liked member of his own party in the U.S. Senate.
This is not at all to say people do not have legitimate reasons why they are not supporting Clinton. Rather, it’s a call for all to recognize that part of the reason some may consider Clinton “unnatural” is because historically leaders have been “naturally” male.
This should not come as a surprise. There is much to the gendered story of how Clinton’s public image has developed over time – stretching back before many young voters today were even born and including ’90s House Republicans – that contributes to perceptions of dishonesty today.
Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, recently published an op-ed in The Guardian, writing “This may shock you: Hillary is fundamentally honest.” In it, Abramson discusses the several fruitless investigations she herself launched into several Clinton “controversies.”
“For decades she’s been portrayed as a Lady Macbeth involving nefarious plots, branded as a ‘congenital liar’ and accused of covering up her husband’s misconduct, from Arkansas to Monica Lewinsky. Some of this is sexist caricature,” Abramson writes, “Some of it she brings on herself by insisting on a perimeter or ‘zone of privacy’ that she protects too fiercely. It’s a natural impulse, given the level of scrutiny she’s attracted, more than any male politician I can think of.”
Some critics say Clinton feels the need to “overcompensate” and feign masculinity by portraying herself as overly tough and hawkish – a roundabout way of stating her natural femininity is mutually exclusive with strength. It is my quite honest view, however, that Hillary being a woman, if anything, makes her a stronger, better candidate – given the hurdles she has had to and continually overcome.
In an almost circular way, changing implicit views about woman leaders will require the presence of more woman leaders themselves. Here’s hoping that the second female president faces less misogyny than seen today in 2016.