Hillary Clinton and the Trap of Acceptable Feminine Behavior, by Chelsea Levinson

“She’s as power hungry as they come. She thinks she’s entitled to the presidency and doesn’t care what she has to do to get it.”

“She’s just not likable or charismatic. She just doesn’t seem real to me.”

“She’s secretive, cold and calculating. She flip-flops constantly. She’s just plain dishonest and can’t be trusted.”

I spend a fair amount of time reading about and engaging in politics online, and I see these refrains repeated about Hillary Clinton over and over again, ad nauseum. Discouragingly, they’re often perpetuated by fellow liberals whom I like and respect. These are gendered and shadowy claims that speak to our country’s collective discomfort with the idea of a woman in the highest office of the United States. Yet, trying to expose their inherent sexism is dizzying. One of the reasons sexism can be difficult to call out is because it’s so often insidious and coded. Further, no one will ever admit to it.

When I suggest that the aforementioned statements hint at a subtle sexism towards Clinton, and ask for demonstrable facts to back them up, I’m met with rebuke: “I’m not sexist! I support and respect Elizabeth Warren. I totally would have voted for her if she ran!” This reasoning is essentially the “I’m not racist, I have a black friend” of misogynist liberal politics. It’s maddening trying to engage, but it feels even worse to let it slide by.

I, too, am an admirer of Elizabeth Warren, but the fact remains that she is a freshman senator on a much smaller stage, and she simply doesn’t have to play by the same rules as Hillary does. She is able to “keep it real” and say what she thinks. Her power is relatively limited, so she does not attract the critical microscope or massive smears that Clinton has weathered for two and a half decades. It is when a woman climbs that she really begins to be distrusted. If Warren ever does find herself on the national stage, I truly hope she is ready for what’s to come. Perhaps, that is one of the reasons she refuses to entertain a presidential run.

Which brings me to Bernie Sanders, who also has the privilege of rejecting the game and playing by his own rules. I was really struck by this brilliant quote from Shakesville:

There is a person in this Democratic primary who can be visibly angry, who can shout, who can use any tone and show any emotion, who can show up to campaign events looking like they just rolled out of bed after a bender. Who can coast by on the double-standard defined and enforced by the establishment.

It is not Hillary Clinton.

All the things I am admonished to admire about Bernie Sanders, that he is passionate, that he is unpolished, that he is impolitic, that he doesn’t give a fuck, are things that the very establishment he allegedly wants to dismantle do not afford his female competitor.

I think this gets to the heart of why I am so frustrated with the vague, gendered attacks on Hillary Clinton. Because at the end of the day, she is being held to standards we’d never dream of holding Sanders, or any male politician, to. This point was illustrated beautifully last night, when a male, liberal friend of mine posted a meme that read, “Hillary Clinton gets a $600 haircut chosen by a panel to appeal to voters. Bernie Sanders doesn’t give a shit about his haircut. He’s got work to do.” I was really bothered by the patent sexism in this comparison. Does anybody actually think Hillary has the option to show up to a stump speech or a debate with messy hair? Of course not. She has to be in full hair, makeup and wardrobe at every public appearance she attends. I shudder to think of what would be said about her if she ever showed her face in public unkempt. Even President Obama admits as much; he told Politico that Clinton “had a tougher job throughout that primary than I did. She had to do everything that I had to do, except, like Ginger Rogers, backwards in heels. She had to wake up earlier than I did because she had to get her hair done. She had to, you know, handle all the expectations that were placed on her.”

And those expectations are enormous.

Hillary is “power hungry” and “pathologically ambitious” for wanting to be president, yet most people who tout this theory ignore the fact that she’s simply going after the same job that every single other male candidate is also vying for. If she’s “power hungry,” then so are they. She’s “cold and calculating” because any time she has been real, honest and open, she has been excoriated by the media and public. She’s guarded and “doesn’t seem real” because every move she’s made for the past several decades has been criticized and spun to make her look like evil incarnate. Hillary has learned from her experiences that there is a tiny box of acceptable female behavior, and yet for some reason, playing by the rules seems to garner her even more hatred. Sady Doyle sums up this acceptable female behavior paradox beautifully in her essay “Likable”:

This plays out on the level of personal expression, too: Women are supposedly over-emotional, whereas men make stern, logical, intelligent judgments. So, if Hillary raises her voice, gets angry, cries, or (apparently) even makes a sarcastic joke at a man’s expense, she will be seen as bitchy, crazy, cruel and dangerous. (Remember the “NO WONDER BILL’S AFRAID” headlines after she raised her voice at a Benghazi hearing; remember the mass freak-out over her “emotional meltdown” when someone thought she might be crying during a concession speech.) She absolutely cannot express negative emotion in public. But people have emotions, and women are supposed to have more of them than men, so if Hillary avoids them – if she speaks strictly in calm, logical, detached terms, to avoid being seen as crazy – we find her “cold,” call her “robotic” and “calculating,” and wonder why she doesn’t express her “feminine side.” Again, she’s going to be faulted for feminine weakness or lack of femininity, and both are damaging.

Okay, so she can never be sad, angry, or impatient. That’s not a ban on all emotion, right? You’d think the one clear path to avoiding the “bitchy” or “cold” descriptors would be to put on a happy face, and admit to emotions only when they are positive. You’d think that, and you’d be wrong: It turns out, people fucking hate it when Hillary Clinton smiles or laughs in public. Hillary Clinton’s laugh gets played in attack ads; it has routinely been called “a cackle” (like a witch, right? Because she’s old, and female, like a witch); frozen stills of Hillary laughing are routinely used to make her look “crazy” in conservative media. She can’t be sad or angry, but she also can’t be happy or amused, and she also can’t refrain from expressing any of those emotions. There is literally no way out of this one. Anything she does is wrong.

I’m keenly aware of this paradox in my own life. I have struggled with, and written about my damaging need to be likable. Bearing witness to the torrent of gendered hatred Hillary Clinton has weathered for her entire adult life has been both frightening and nauseating, and has held me back in more ways than I probably even realize. It’s hard not to feel like these attacks on her are also attacks on me, and every other ambitious woman who refuses to be sidelined or put in a box. For a long time, I sat silent; feeling diminished and powerless. I was afraid of fighting back against the way women are viewed. There were times when I even perpetuated these damaging ideas myself; that a woman who climbs is ruthless, and that being likable is more important than being true to yourself and getting stuff done. I almost didn’t write this article because I was afraid of being eaten by my own; my liberal brethren. Frankly, I’m tired of fighting an uphill battle against misogyny. But despite my fears, I continue my commitment to speaking out. I refuse to live in the narrow box of acceptable female behavior, and anyone who asks me to is really just proving my overall point.

It’s a trap, and a tricky one, that Hillary Clinton finds herself in. It seems to me that she will need a heck of a lot more than billionaire donors and the so-called

establishment backing her if she’s going to overcome the rampant, sexist systems that attempt to keep her in her place.


Picture Credit: By Marc Nozell from Merrimack, New Hampshire, USA [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons




Chelsea Levinson, J.D., is a Telly Award-winning media content producer who specializes in research and writing. She has helped develop and produce over 500 digital videos, and her writing has been featured on Thought Catalog and HyperVocal. Previously, she was a legal and policy researcher, specializing in labor, gender and reproductive rights. She researched for and contributed to Babygate: How to Survive Pregnancy and Parenting in the Workplace.