I am a Hillary Clinton supporter. And as this election cycle progresses, I become more militantly so. At times I feel like her personal defender—a sense of obligation I haven’t quite placed (and that Hillary probably doesn’t need). I did not anticipate this moral crusade, and I certainly didn’t feel this way during the 2008 election cycle. But in 2008, I did not fully respect the potential of a woman in the White House, nor the extra barriers she faces.
I’m not infuriated by blatantly sexist comments. Nor am I infuriated by the incessant talk of Hillary’s “damn emails” or Benghazi. I’m most angry when I sense sexism lurking beneath the surface but can’t grab hold or point it out. That lingering feeling that something else is going on infuriates me. When I look at the big picture, when I take into account conversations with friends and family and public portrayals of Hillary, I conclude that sexism is at least partly responsible for the public’s unwillingness to warm up to her.
The “Hillary defender” emerges when I see friends characterize Bernie Sanders as a huggable, supremely likable leader while characterizing Hillary as a calculating, heartless hag. I hesitate to bring up the Hillary/Bernie divide as it can distract from my main concern here—that sexism plays a role in the anti-Hillary sentiment. I understand and respect why someone would support Bernie over Hillary. But the liberal (not to mention conservative) vehemence directed towards Hillary cannot, in my mind, be explained by her past or her policies alone. She is, after all, incredibly qualified as a longtime health care reformer, advocate for women and children, and a former Senator and Secretary of State.
In an article titled “Hillary Clinton supporters: it is OK to care about gender on the ballot,” the author explains that a candidate’s gender is a legitimate consideration—especially given the dismal number of women in public office. Discussion exploded in the comments section, with commenters claiming the article is sexist for suggesting that a vote for Hillary could be based on her gender. Apparently they didn’t read the article, or just missed the point. The article specifically addresses this issue adding that, “[an] absurd conclusion…is that if gender plays any role in a woman’s vote, it must be her sole litmus test.”
The public comments also overwhelmingly claim Hillary is unelectable and, generally, a bad person—much of the fervent opposition coming from Bernie supporters. Again, I understand the pro-Bernie arguments. But I can’t recall any other fellow Democrat receiving the same constant flack from members of her own party. Consider the 2004 Presidential Primary—did you see this relentless berating and level of criticism mounted by progressives against Howard Dean, John Edwards, or John Kerry? No.
A recent, New York Post article—tellingly titled “Awkward, pandering spectacle of Hillary Clinton trying to ‘be real’”—includes many other egregious, not-yet-played-out criticisms of Hillary. The article responds to an informal interview between Hillary and women from the Lifetime TV network. In the interview, Hillary discusses her mother’s encouragement; the importance of women standing up to criticism in prejudicial workplaces; and finally, the difficulty of processing emotions as a female politician—having to express yourself without triggering negative gender stereotypes. The author, obviously missing this last point, claims Hillary “squealed” in excitement at speaking to the interviewer (I don’t hear a squeal, but listen for yourself at 8:27). Frustratingly, Hillary must also contend with criticism that she is incapable of feeling or showing real emotion. According to the author, she can’t even sit naturally, and is described as being “perched uncomfortably.”
All of this might seem harmless if it didn’t come in the context of a White House that has never seen a female president. Or a Congress that’s composed of less than 20% women. Or statistics showing that women have incredibly low levels of influence on both state and federal policy. These mischaracterizations of Hillary have very real consequences when they form the backbone of our perception of female political figures.
As a stark example of how these misperceptions can be abused, in the 2008 presidential election, strategists for now President Obama concluded that Obama should capitalize on Americans’ “deeply divided feelings about Hillary Clinton”, even though the public’s feelings “[weren’t] her fault.” The cold reality is that Hillary hired this strategist to run her current campaign—a strategist who, in the previous election, successfully capitalized on the public’s misguided (and what I believe the strategist was getting at, sexist) feelings.
If I were in Hillary’s shoes, I’d be tempted to throw in the towel. But Hillary can’t do that. She’s one of a small handful of female political figures. Giving up, or even showing outright frustration, would taint all female politicians. President Obama can shed tears during a public speech without all men fearing the appearance of weakness. Donald Trump can openly insult nearly every minority group without painting all men as bigots. This is the privilege of male politicians in a male-dominated political world. But Hillary stands nearly alone as a prominent female figure in American politics. And with the world watching, she apparently can do no right.
I admit that the more I witness undeserved criticism of Hillary, the more I ignore justifiable criticism as well. But I am willing to address my perceptual biases. And I sincerely hope others are too.