One is not born, but rather becomes, a Hillary Clinton: What Harry Reid gets wrong about women in politics

Reid thinks a Clinton win is inevitable because Americans want a lighter, feminine touch in the White House

By Katie McDonough
Published April 3, 2015 7:15PM (EDT)
Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton         (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Steve Dipaola/photo collage by Salon)
Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Reuters/Steve Dipaola/photo collage by Salon)

Harry Reid is retiring at the end of this term, and he’s doing a lot of thinking about the future of the Democratic Party as he inches closer to sweet, sweet retirement.

Looking ahead to 2016, Reid told the New York Times this week that Hillary Clinton is his favorite to lead the ticket because, “This is the time for a woman to run.”

“Women and some men, like me, if they are anything like me, they have come to the realization that women have qualities that we’ve been lacking in America for a long time, to be the leader of the country,” he continued. “Women are much more patient. They can be, if they are pushed the wrong way, combative, but they are not combative. A lot of we men are combative just by nature.”

The majority leader, like so many other people who are probably well-meaning and genuinely want to see women better represented in leadership roles, seems to think women’s supposedly innate niceness is the reason why we should be given a turn at the wheel. He’s reducing the chain of events that have led us to this moment -- not just the gains of the feminist movement but the decades-long political marathon Clinton has run to be positioned where she is right now -- to some Mars/Venus pop psychology about the country badly needing a woman’s delicate touch.

Now taking issue with this kind of “compliment” is, I’d say, among the top 5 reasons that I get angry emails telling me to lighten up and how I am the reason that men are afraid to say anything at all and have to cower in terrified silence all day every day. The general gist is something like, You can’t even say something nice about a woman anymore without someone jumping down your throat!

But as I’ve written before, though there is evidence to suggest that women have better track records on working collaboratively, listening to viewpoints different than their own and having a stomach for debate and compromise -- that I totally agree would well serve the country -- that doesn’t make the traits biologically determined. In fact, research suggests that women may be more effective leaders because, with so few represented in positions of power, the risks of failure are much higher. Put frankly, they simply have more to prove.

A 2011 study published in the Journal of Political Science on women's leadership found that female politicians were generally more productive and more effective than their male colleagues, which researchers related to women working much harder than their peers to overcome sexist biases that would otherwise hold them back.

Chalking these things up to an innate quality not only puts women in a box (and paints a really unflattering portrait of men’s supposed brutal nature), it also diminishes the political intelligence, social savvy and general Boss Bitch maneuvering that many women have cultivated after spending their careers in all-male spaces and learning how to survive.

To borrow from Simone de Beauvoir, one is not born, but rather becomes, a Hillary Clinton.

Reid’s comment strikes me as funny for another reason, and that’s Clinton’s clear record as a hawk. In the Senate and as secretary of state, Clinton has a long history of advocating for military action. She has often positioned herself to the right of President Obama on foreign policy, from Syria to the Ukraine. She compared Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler.

These are matters of literal combat. As a friend remarked while we were discussing Reid’s comments, when it comes to matters of war, “She’s noncombative … unless there’s an opportunity where she can choose between combat and not.”

Reid’s view of why it's time for a woman to run puts into perspective just how entrenched our ideas about men and women really are. Our desire to see women as peaceful compromisers is so strong that even someone with a public record of supporting aggressive military action -- and who has developed a teflon persona allowing her to survive and dish out decades of political attacks -- is praised as though she were some kind of doting 1950s sitcom mom just waiting to clean up the country’s many messes.

That's not only a decidedly retrograde way to talk about women's leadership, it's a clear misread of Clinton.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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2016 2016 Elections Benevolent Sexism Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Subtle Sexism