This past weekend, I went with my parents and siblings to visit extended family in Palm Springs, California. As we sat, mimosa in hand, around the pool, them blonde and shimmering, I beige as February snow, talk turned, as it invariably does, to politics. Though I protested, a discussion between California libertarians and Michigan liberals began, running the gamut of ridiculous claims and irreconcilable biases. I took extra gulps of my mimosa, willing myself not to talk as wild assertions flew around me.
“Kasich seems sturdy. He’s been a very successful governor.”
If you consider defunding nearly all women’s health options successful, sure.
“Jeb just needs to grow some balls to compete with Trump.”
Because testicles are really the paragon of anatomical strength …
“The first woman president — how sure are we that Hillary is actually a woman?”
“Women like Bernie more than Hillary. They can’t trust her.”
This word “trust,” how can you not admit it’s gendered and placing Hillary in an impossible bind between showing fortitude and showing care? And where are your statistics outside of Twitter and Fox News, please?
And will someone just buy Bernie a goddamn comb already.
As I was sitting by the pool, unsuccessfully ignoring the sexist remarks, I read Vanity Fair’s February cover story on Fox News pundit Megyn Kelly.
As a liberal, I find Kelly to be a complicated enigma — on one hand, she seems unabashedly selfish and opportunistic, defending her individual right to maternity leave one moment and making searing statements against women’s health organizations the next. She is of the camp of people — specifically, of women — who scoff at feminism, asserting that their own chutzpah and perseverance got them to where they are, and that other women should stop complaining and just do the same.
On the other hand, in an August Republican debate moderated by Kelly, her first question was directed at Donald Trump, directly calling him out for his past misogynistic statements, and questioning his ability to lead a country comprised of 51 percent women. (That he turned around and asserted that she was rude because she “had blood coming out of her wherever” only seemed to reinforce the need for her initial question.)
Emotionally, I don’t really know what to do with Kelly, as I’m morally against most of the opinions she holds most dear. But in terms of the public eye, and the political cycle, I know she’s important. In an election year in which the media matters more than anything else, there is unspeakable value in a female political pundit getting so much attention.
There is so much to be said about female politician’s representations in the media. But the subtle digs and subconscious judgments on Hillary, on pundits like Megyn, are nothing new. As so many have written before me, female politicians, especially ones with illustrious histories like Clinton, are constantly battling expectations from all sides: “Show strength, but vulnerability. Be direct, but not a bitch. Be honest, but still prophetic. Never fuck up. Always say the right thing. Above all, be human.”
Just like everyone, Hillary is imperfect. But when you compare media criticisms of her with those made of other candidates, the biases are glaring. She is judged for her clothing, she is parodied as robotic by even liberal organizations like Saturday Night Live. She is criticized for not being female enough (the pantsuits), while her 50 years of accomplishments are picked apart for every possible error.
This is all stuff we’ve heard before. Being a woman in any public space, particularly one dominated by men, means that you are often held to a much higher standard than the men around you — Hillary has to do twice as much to be revered half as much as the men around her. What I find more enlightening is discovering biases in the reverse; picking apart male candidates’ histories and calculating how a woman in their position may have been treated.
Many people don’t know that the mother of Bernie Sanders’ only biological son, Levi, was Bernie’s girlfriend at the time, Susan Mott. They weren’t married then, and they never got married. In years after Levi’s birth, Bernie ran for Vermont gubernatorial and senatorial campaigns, never winning but upending the political landscape of Vermont. Finally, in 1980, he became mayor of Burlington, beginning in earnest his public political career.
I didn’t know any of this before embarking on a lengthy Sanders research quest, and I find the lack of public knowledge about it notable. Imagine a female politician in his shoes; giving birth to a son “out of wedlock,” continuing to try to fight for political office. Would she have succeeded? Would she have to fight not only social and institutional battles (as an unwed mother) but media-driven ones as well? My belief is that she would have been ravaged by the media, her morals and judgment called into question. My belief is that she wouldn’t be running for president today.
From the other side, we have a man like Ted Cruz. Known to be onerous by most who have met him — especially by his particularly vocal college roommate — Cruz is not considered to be warm or genuine. In fact, he is considered to be pretty slimy, by Republicans and Democrats alike. His (heinous) policies aside, interpersonally Cruz doesn’t bring much to the table. But voters are coming for him in droves. Would a woman with Cruz’s demeanor — dishonest, malicious, sometimes even vulgar — be winning like him? Would she even receive enough support to start a campaign to begin with? My belief is that she wouldn’t, because first and foremost women are supposed to be likeable.
So this is why I struggle every time I hear someone say they don’t like Hillary because they can’t trust her, or because they don’t find her likeable, or because they don’t like her “vibes.” Not only do we need to be conscious of the institutional sexism that is constantly working against female candidates; we need to think about what isn’t being said about the male ones.
This is not a tacit endorsement of Clinton, nor a tirade against the male candidates. I understand the legitimate reasons for and against each of them. But I think many people, even liberal, intellectual voters, forget to look in between the lines when it comes to the public gendering of an election season. Male candidates are where they are because of their privileges, their successes, their intelligence and persistence and their adversities. Female candidates are up against the same — their adversities are just much greater, and much more insidious.