Having grown up right outside of D.C., Women’s Center student staff member Hannah has spent most of her life following politics, and uses that passion here to reflect on its lack of gender parity.
Did you know that if you say “women in politics” three times while looking in a mirror, Hillary Clinton appears behind you? Okay, maybe that theory isn’t 100% accurate, but she is the first person many people think of when hearing that phrase, and it’s easy to see why: as a former Senator, First Lady, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate, she has had a long career in the public eye, and with that has come the added burden of being one of a few successful women in a male-dominated field. With the release of her new book about what happened in the 2016 election (aptly named What Happened), this seemed like the perfect time to reflect on how we talk about women in politics and why it matters. From blatant sexism to the demonization of women’s ambition, the double standards and stereotypes these women face all serve to perpetuate misogyny and exclude women from some of the highest leadership positions our country has to offer.
~Disclaimer: This post is not a commentary on or endorsement of Hillary Clinton’s (or any other politician’s) stances. People on both sides of the aisle have perpetuated sexism in politics, and we are all responsible for taking steps to combat it.~
The Biggest Red Flag
It’s easy to see blatant sexism being used against Hillary in many parts of the 2016 election, the most obvious of which being pro-Trump merchandise. Slogans like “Trump that bitch,” “Hillary sucks, but not like Monica,” and “Life’s a bitch; don’t vote for one” were worn proudly by many Trump supporters. Now, attacking one’s opposition–no matter what side of the aisle they are on–has been a part of campaigning since this country began, but criticism of policy ideas, voting records, and political experience is entirely different from pointedly gendered attacks. What’s troubling about this kind of rhetoric is the way it normalizes harmful gender stereotypes and makes people believe that this is an acceptable way of talking about others.
When I mentioned one of these slogans to someone I knew, he laughed and said that he “hates Trump,” but the slogan was funny. In my opinion, if you claim to hate a man who brags about sexual assault, you should also hate the misogyny that many of his supporters have no problem perpetuating.
The Demonization of Women’s Ambition
Men–especially those in positions of authority–are rarely pigeonholed as sex objects or domestic figures and then labeled as too aggressive or domineering when they seek positions that don’t fit those labels. There are lots of examples of male actors who have ran for or contemplated running for high-level elected office (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dwayne The Rock Johnson), and very few people have said that they’re too shallow or inexperienced to hold these executive positions, nor have I seen commentary This is not the case with women. In fact, Hillary Clinton’s openness about her ambition caused such a backlash that it spawned a cookie-baking contest between the two potential First Ladies. Seriously. During the 1992 primary race, California Governor Jerry Brown accused Bill Clinton of using his time in office as Arkansas’ governor to help his wife’s legal practice. Hillary Clinton then fired back by saying “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” This struck such a chord with the American public–among both men who viewed her comment as “bitchy” and women who took offense to the notion that she viewed herself as being above domestic work–that the magazine Family Circle saw a way to capitalize off the controversy. Thus began a cookie-baking contest that has survived the last 25 years of politics. Oh, and another fun fact: Even though Hillary Clinton was the candidate in the 2016 election, she was still the one competing against Melania Trump. While I have nothing but respect for those who bring cookies into this world, we’re not living in the 1950s; domestic work should not be the only option available to women.
Most of the men I know would probably agree with that stance, but there is still a pervasive fear of powerful women. Many social psychologists attribute this to a phenomenon called precarious manhood. Essentially, men are afraid of being emasculated and consequently losing their manhood, and ambitious women can invoke such fears. Case in point: Hillary Clinton’s favorability rating has historically always been lower when she runs for office and demonstrates this ambition compared to when she is in office and less in the public eye.
Finding a Solution
If you’re reading this and thinking “I voted for Hillary Clinton so I can’t be sexist” or “I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton, but that’s not because I secretly hate women!” then slow your roll. The point of this post is not to call all Hillary supporters perfect advocates for women or to claim that everyone who voted against her did so because of misogyny. In fact, people on the left are just as capable of perpetuating sexism as people on the right. Take Sarah Palin: while many people during her 2008 candidacy for Vice President had concerns about her experience and choices as Alaska’s governor, their criticism quickly blended with misogynistic commentary about her appearance and her more typically feminine persona (I wouldn’t recommend spending too long looking at google image results for “Caribou Barbie”). The point is to raise awareness about the way we as a society view women in politics, and why they are treated so differently than men. Double standards are everywhere: If a woman is too traditionally feminine, then she is too stupid to do the job, but if she demonstrates such capacity, then she is too aggressive. If she isn’t domestic enough, then she is forced to release a chocolate chip cookie recipe, but once she does, then she is seen as fake and trying too hard to be likeable. If she shows emotion, then she is too sensitive, but if she doesn’t, then she’s too robotic. If she doesn’t have much political experience, then she should let someone more qualified do the job, but if she has the experience, then she should step back because her time in politics has gone on too long. With all of these sentiments weighing so heavily on the conversation, it’s hard for a woman winning an election to feel like much of a victory.
If we want to improve representation in politics and promote women’s empowerment, then we have to improve the way we talk about the few women who are already in the public eye. This is about more than just “girl power.” Representation in politics–and in every other institution–does more than just make a prettier picture; it allows for everyone to feel that their voices are heard and their experiences matter. The Women’s Center here was founded in part to meet the unique needs that many women in college have, and the same principle applies in government. By listening to women’s voices, the UMBC community was able to better provide services that had been previously overlooked. If women are heard in local, state, and federal governments, imagine what can be accomplished. There is no one ideology held by all women in elected office, just as there is no one monolithic voice of all American women: when I talk about wanting equal representation in politics, I don’t want people to vote for a candidate simply because she’s a woman; I want there to be enough women running so that they don’t have to.
- More on precarious manhood and how it relates to Hillary Clinton’s campaign
- Some fast facts from Emerge America about women in politics
- An NPR piece on why so few women hold elected office
- Check out Women Involved in Learning and Leadership (WILL) –specifically the Elect Her program hosted every spring
- The Women’s Center and WILL have whole page on Women and Leadership Experience