The 2016 presidential election cycle exposes a reality that women know all too well — there exists in our society a deeply-entrenched and insidious double-standard for women seeking positions of power. No matter what Hillary Clinton says or does, her actions are analyzed through a lens that puts her into one gendered stereotype after another. And it’s a Catch-22.
To hear right-wing pundits tell it, Clinton is simultaneously a sickly grandmother unfit to cope with the rigors of public office and the Machiavellian architect of every perceived failing of U.S. foreign and domestic policy. She’s an opportunist who is “totally owned by Wall Street,” as Trump says, but also too close to labor unions. When she shows too much vigor on the campaign trail, she’s shrill and hysterical. When she shows too little, she’s cold and calculating, or just plain weak. Some attacks against her are overt misogyny; others carry sexist undertones that are no less disturbing.
In 2013, I ran on the Democratic gubernatorial ticket with Barbara Buono against Chris Christie and got a glimpse of the challenges that Clinton is up against. Shortly after the announcement of my candidacy, a GOP county chairman likened my selection as running mate to “picking [his] secretary.”
Throughout the campaign, detractors claimed that my position as executive vice president of 1199SEIU — a top elected position in the nation’s largest labor union and a job requiring deep political and policy experience, leadership, and managerial skills to serve our majority female membership — was not relevant to the qualifications needed to hold public office. Yet it is rare to hear a similar critique of male candidates coming from male-dominated institutions like banking, finance, or corporate law, where business ties are implicitly seen as evidence of a candidate’s acceptability and leadership acumen.
Clinton’s recent remark that she “had to learn as a young woman to control [her] emotions” highlights something that many women experience daily. At the risk of appearing too delicate or too crazed, we condition ourselves to limit the depth and breadth of our emotional reactions. Trump can shout, former House Speaker John Boehner can cry, but Clinton can do neither without risking unwarranted criticism. But she also cannot not be emotional.
Gender isn’t the only aspect of her candidacy on which Clinton is facing a double standard. She is also fighting an uphill battle in that she is being scrutinized — rightly — as a statesperson who must show command of the issues and exercise good judgment, while the bar is set far lower for Trump. He is barely able to express a rudimentary knowledge of world affairs; but, so long as he goes a short time without detonating a fresh controversy, his campaign stays more or less on track. Nobody expects him to know the complexities of domestic policy or international relations, so he is graded on a much lower curve. He gets by on hyperbole, an alpha-male persona, and the premise that anything can get done by sheer force of will.
The expectations for Clinton vs. Trump in the lead-up to the first debate are a case in point for this double standard. Clinton was expected to be brilliant on substance, open and personable, and tough but without coming off as angry. Again, a demand for an unattainable perfection; as if women and girls need yet another standard of “perfection” against which to measure ourselves in the public sphere, and for all Americans to measure Secretary Clinton.
The expectation for Trump was that he demonstrate the ability to do some basic prep work and avoid further alienating millions of Americans. Clinton emerged from the debate as the clear winner because she was able to walk her tightrope while Trump couldn’t control his offensive and degrading outbursts.
It’s easy to blame the “media” for Trump’s ascendancy, and certainly our sound bite news culture and the competition for ratings among networks have given him an effective bully pulpit. Social media has also grown to become a major source for American news consumption, which can create an echo chamber of false information and extreme viewpoints.
But, ultimately, Trump’s candidacy is nothing particularly new in politics. Like many strongmen in history, his rise is a backlash against a perceived — and largely illusory — loss of power and influence by one group of people in favor of another. After nearly eight years of our first black president, a national awareness emerging about police violence in minority communities, a rapid shift in favor of LGBTQ rights, an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan citizenry, and now — in one of those rarest moments of history — the possibility of a woman becoming the most powerful person on Earth, white male privilege is implied by Trump as being under threat.
For Trump, politics is a zero-sum game: it’s either them or us. Rather than lifting all boats, we have to let Syrian refugees drown or else we’ll be the next victims. Rather than trying to understand those we disagree with, let’s simply vilify them, imprison them, or deport them.
For those of us who believe that we are indeed stronger together when we refuse to indulge in the politics of division, the stakes in this election are simply far too high to let political double standards slide. For journalists and every other concerned observer, being forthright and calling out sexism, bigotry, and falsehoods when they see them does not mean compromising one’s objectivity.
Seeking the facts, not a shallow appearance of neutrality, by holding every candidate to the same standards must be the fundamental aim of our public debate. This is the only way we can hope to elect a candidate with the experience, knowledge, and demeanor to successfully navigate the complexities of global leadership. Very soon it will be up to American voters to make a decision that will have consequences for decades to come. May they do so thoughtfully and wisely.