The Politics of Gender

Disclaimer: Although this article is political in nature, I have tried to keep the discussion strictly to gender and the role it plays in politics. This is not an in-depth policy assessment of any candidate.

It’s hard to remember, but just a few years ago, everyone loved Hillary Clinton. When she stepped down as US Secretary of State in January 2013, her approval rating stood at what the Wall Street Journal described as an “eye-popping” 69%. That made her not only the most popular politician in the country, but the second-most popular secretary of state since 1948. For a while, she seemed invincible.

And then, of course, she decided to run for president. And that, it seems, is where the problems began.

How can we explain the currently “unlikable” Clinton of today with the adored politician of yesterday? There’s a simple pattern: Clinton’s public approval drops whenever she campaigns for a new position, then it soars when she gets the job. And it’s not Clinton alone who’s been a victim to this gender-specific trend. Liberal favorite Elizabeth Warren was also famously trashed in the 90’s, called “unlikable” and “a know-it-all”, before finally eking out a narrow win in her bid for Senate. And once she got there — well, the rest is history.

Today, less than 8% of Americans say that they would not vote for a female candidate. But that doesn’t mean that we no longer judge political candidates based on gender. As far as Clinton and Warren go, we seem to really dislike them when they run for office.

Why is that? Part of it is what the very act of campaigning stands for. Campaigning is not succeeding. It’s asking for success, for power. Campaigning is claiming that you are better than the other candidates — in other words, it’s off limits for women. And that conclusion seems pretty accurate, especially considering that women often find self-promotion difficult even outside the realm of politics.

But campaigning is hardly the only double standard that exists. For example, both Clinton and Sanders have declared they favor paid maternity leave, sick leave, and equal pay. What sets them apart? A lot of it is style, not substance. Sanders can shout his message and wave his arms without hesitation. Clinton can’t. If she appeared as angry at the “system” as he is, she would be dismissed as an angry, hysterical woman; a sight that makes voters nervous.

And there’s more. Clinton is criticized almost nonstop for her tone and appearance. Bernie, for his part, yells, curses, spits, rocks the hair of a mad scientist, and has probably worn the same suit ten times (seriously), but faces no backlash. Clinton is called a flip-flopper, even though Sanders became a Democrat only when it was politically convenient. Clinton’s experience brands her “establishment,” even though her opponent has been in Congress longer. She is seen as untrustworthy and someone who “plays the game” when people conveniently forget that, as a woman, there is no other way to climb the ranks other than to “play the game.” She’s under pressure to release her paid speech transcripts when no male candidate, including Obama, has ever been asked the same. In short, she’s been under thinly-veiled sexist attacks for decades — something that has made her cautious, which, of course, makes her  “untrustworthy” yet again. It’s a never ending negative feedback loop.

When Sanders talked about how Gloria Steinem called him an “honorary woman” and how he had oh-so-humbly “accepted that title,” I remember cringing to myself. Because whether anyone would like to admit it or not, there’s no alternate universe in which a female Bernie Sanders would survive to serious political candidacy without being buried alive in political attack ads. It’s fine to say that you sympathize with women’s issues, and Sanders clearly does, but calling yourself an “honorary woman” really crosses a line. Because, until you’ve had to deal with systemic sexism and the tests of character that come with it, you have NO idea what it’s like to be a woman in a system that’s designed against you.

At the end of the day, it’s fine to not support Clinton for policy-based reasons. No one is saying that she gets a free pass from answering difficult questions. But it’s important to be aware of the subtle, insidious sexism that the public perpetuates towards her and women like her, and call it like you see it.

Just because she’s a woman, her courage to campaign for a job that matches her level of talent is called “ruthless,” “ambitious,” and “selfish.” I say — let’s cut that BS out. It’s time to get back on policy.

About the Author

Namankita Rana

Passionate about technology, women’s issues, art, fashion, and global politics. Though maybe not in that exact order.