Subtle sexism: 7 of the less-noted but still very problematic attacks on Hillary Clinton

It goes much deeper than the comments on her voice, clothing and hair

Published August 25, 2016 8:59AM (EDT)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at Riverfront Sports in Scranton, Pa., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign event at Riverfront Sports in Scranton, Pa., Monday, Aug. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


It's entirely reasonable to criticize Hillary Clinton. She's running for president of the United States, after all. If she's elected, she's going to be representing all U.S. citizens: we should tell her what we want from her and speak out when she lets us down.

But a significant amount of anti-Clinton criticism is loaded with sexism. It's not just the obvious examples, like critiquing her clothing and her voice, microanalyzing her gestures and mannerisms, sexualizing her or targeting her with sexist and misogynist slurs. Much of the sexism against Hillary Clinton flies under the radar. On the surface, it looks like legitimate political commentary. But when you understand some of the ways sexism commonly plays out, it's glaringly obvious.

Here are seven examples.

1. Higher standards, double standards and expecting perfection. A huge amount of venom is aimed at Clinton for actions that are commonplace in U.S. national politics. The most obvious example: taking donations from corporations.

Yes, big money in politics is a huge problem. It's also extremely common and it's old news. Just about every elected official on a national level takes campaign donations from corporations. So why is Clinton getting raked over the coals for it? Why is she the one who is routinely called a Wall Street shill? The amount of hatred Clinton has received over this nearly universal feature of national politics is wildly disproportionate — especially since she's campaigning on raising taxes on the rich and overturning the Citizens United ruling. Clinton's foreign policy record also gets her excoriated as a war hawk and a genocidal murderer of children, with a degree of vitriol that somehow bypasses both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.

And there's lots of all-or-nothing thinking about Clinton. Every mistake she's made, every bad action she's taken, is treated as proof that she's bad to the bone and unfit for office. It would be baffling — except that professional women in almost every arena face this. Women are held to a higher standard than men. Any woman in professional or public life can expect her record to be gone over with a fine-toothed comb. Any flaws or mistakes will be magnified, noticed more and remembered longer, while their successes are attributed to luck.

If you object to Clinton's policies and her record, by all means, say so. But why the venom? If you haven't aimed this degree of hostility, mistrust and contempt at other Democratic candidates and officials over corporate money or overly hawkish foreign policy, why are you aiming it at Clinton?

2. Blaming her for things her husband did or saying she's riding his coattails. Hillary Clinton is not the same person as Bill Clinton. She has her own political record, similar to Bill's in some ways, different in others. She was a U.S. senator for eight years, Secretary of State for four. She had an extensive record of public service before her husband became governor of Arkansas and president of the United States. Even as first lady, she had her own political record; among other things, she pushed hard for a universal health care plan, and in the wake of that defeat, succeeded in expanding health care coverage for children.

In the 15 years since Bill left office, Hillary has established her own career, shaped her own policy positions and built her own positive reputation in Washington, even among political opponents, for her prodigious knowledge, policy expertise, work ethic, tenacity and ability to work with others.

Hillary Clinton has her own record. Yet many of her critics cite the flaws in Bill Clinton's administration as reasons to oppose her. Her political successes are also attributed to her husband; her career has been described as "riding Bill's coattails," and in critiques of political families, she's been given as an example of politicians "running their spouses for office."

It's all too common for married women to be treated as extensions of their husbands. This is doubly ironic when women are blamed for their husband's failures, while their husbands get credit for their wives' success, which is exactly what's happening with Hillary Clinton. Bill's bad acts are her responsibility; her successes are because of him. This particular form of sexism creates a huge obstacle for women running for office. As long as it continues, women who are married to politicians will never be able to enter politics without being considered suspect.

3. Ignoring her accomplishments, positions and record. "Clinton is really a conservative!" Actually, Clinton's voting record in the Senate was very liberal, with a 93 percent overlap with Bernie Sanders and high ratings from the Sierra Club, AFL-CIO, NAACP, HRC, National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

"Clinton is just a Wall Street shill!" Oh, really? Central features of Clinton's campaign platform include closing tax loopholes on corporations, increased taxation of the rich and campaign finance reform than includes an overturn of Citizens United.

"Clinton is no different from Donald Trump!" Are you kidding? Reproductive rights, immigration rights, climate change, criminal justice reform, racial justice, TBQLG rights, education, gun control, a basic understanding of the workings of government, a basic respect for the Constitution, not being a fascist: the list of important differences between Clinton and Trump reaches to the moon and back.

It's distressing to see how little resemblance there is between Clinton's actual record and the pictures commonly painted of her. It's especially distressing to see how many progressives and liberals have bought into the decades-long right-wing smear campaign against her. But it's unsurprising to anyone familiar with sexism. Women in the workplace and in public life can expect to have their accomplishments and opinions ignored, diminished and trivialized.

4. Saying she's not passionate enough. Clinton is commonly criticized for not being passionate enough, especially by Sanders supporters, many of whom took his passion as a sign of authenticity and willingness to fight the system. But when it comes to expressing emotion, women in politics literally can't win. If they're too calm and controlled, they're seen as cold and uncaring; if they're too intense, they're seen as over-emotional, out of control and angry. At best, they have to walk an extremely fine tightrope between being "too emotional" and "not emotional enough." At worst, there is literally no degree of emotional expression that will be acceptable. (If you want to see this in action, watch this hilarious video in which Jimmy Kimmel explains to Clinton how she can make herself more appealing.)

Extensive research demonstrates that "women face distinct social penalties for doing the very things that lead to success." To quote Deborah Tannen, "While the qualities expected of a good leader (be forceful, confident and at times, angry) are similar to those we expect of a good man, they are the opposite of what we expect of a good woman (be gentle, self-deprecating and emotional, but not angry)." Women in politics are damned if they do and dammed if they don't.

5. Calling her dishonest. Clinton has been ranked as one of the most honest candidates in the 2016 presidential race. Yet one of the most common critiques she faces is that she's dishonest. Women who aren't perfectly nurturing wives and mothers are commonly seen as scheming, manipulative liars. This is notably true for women in positions of power, especially women in politics. It's a classic way of discrediting women, and dismissing what they say and do.

6. Calling her a queen, calling her election a coronation or insisting her election is fraudulent. No, the 2016 Democratic primary was not rigged: even Sanders and his press secretary say it wasn't, and that theory doesn't even make sense. But among other problems, the state-by-state patchwork of election laws is confusing, for candidates, election workers and voters. And this works to the advantage of party insiders who are intimately familiar with the election machinery.

This was a problem in 2004, when John Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president. It was a problem in 2000, when Al Gore was the nominee. It was a problem in 1992 and 1996, when it was Bill Clinton; in 1988 when it was Michael Dukakis; in 1984 when it was Walter Mondale. Yet none of these nominees had the validity of their elections widely questioned by progressives and liberals; none were regularly called a king; and none had their primary election commonly referred to as a coronation.

One of the most common forms of sexism is to treat women's achievements as fraudulent. Despite the uphill climb women face due to sexist bias, women's accomplishments are more likely to be seen as unearned. And despite the many advantages created by sexist bias, men's accomplishments are more likely to be seen as having been earned. Calling Clinton a fraud is similar to the racism behind the claim that Obama isn't a U.S. citizen: rather than critiquing the candidate on her strengths and weaknesses, it questions the validity of her holding the office at all.

7. Saying women only support her because she's a woman. Many women have made detailed arguments for why they're supporting Clinton, citing her policy positions and voting record and her record as Secretary of State, only to be told they're just voting for her "because she's a woman." When women express any excitement over the first major-party nomination of a woman for president, or any pride about this enormous achievement, it's often interpreted the same way: "You're just voting for her because she's a woman."

This directly uses Clinton's gender as an excuse to ignore her accomplishmentsskillsrecordgoals and all the reasons people have for backing her. And it's not just sexist against Clinton, it's sexist against the millions of women who support her.

Hillary Clinton is one of the most closely scrutinized people in U.S. politics. There has been a decades-long right-wing smear campaign against her (much of which has been bought into by the left), and every mistake she’s ever made has been examined with a high-powered microscope. Assuming that women who support her are unaware of her record, both positive and negative, is absurd, and it's sexist.

None of this is to say that Clinton shouldn't be criticized. During this campaign, and if she's elected president, she will no doubt do things that are disappointing to progressives. When that happens, people will speak out, as they should. But let's remember the unconscious sexism that underlies so much criticism of women in the workplace and in the public eye. When we criticize Hillary Clinton, let's make sure it's fair, proportionate and based in reality.

By Greta Christina

MORE FROM Greta Christina

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