Questions about Hillary Clinton’s health are soaked in gender bias
The narratives surrounding Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis and her health this week have been filtered through the routine partisan lenses. Very little has been said about how her insistence on toughing it out until a sick day was unavoidable is not simply the American way, but an American woman’s way of navigating gendered health dynamics in the United States.
People’s capacity to take time away from work when they are sick is stratified by gender, ethnicity, immigration status and class dynamics in the United States. Clinton’s options are simultaneously specific to her and emblematic of larger struggles women across the United States face.
Publicly expressing weakness is not Hillary Clinton’s default mode. As the most successful U.S. female presidential candidate to date, Clinton must contend with workplace stereotypes that push against the instinct to take a sick day from the campaign trail. Although he was speaking in 2016, Donald Trump’s jokes at Clinton’s expense this week drew upon one of the oldest stereotypes: that women are “frail.” Prior to the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this stereotype served as a permissible justification for occupational segregation, which served to lock qualified women out of the most lucrative and prestigious jobs. And there is no job more prestigious than Leader of the Free World.
That said, this notion of women’s fragility did not cover working class women of color, who have been expected to work, particularly in caring professions, without the benefit of paid sick leave. Only recently have some domestic care workers have started to receive paid sick leave, primarily at the state level.
The obligation to prove one is “tough enough” continues to fall disparately on women candidates from Clinton’s generation. As several media outlets have noted, male presidents have routinely contended with various ailments and still managed to have a successful presidency.
A second stereotype was used repeatedly by corporations called to defend their all-male patterns of hiring and promotion: that women “didn’t really want to be…[a manager, an executive, a leader], illustrating significant discomfort with ambitious women. The cultural expectation that women want to be the nurse but not the doctor; they want to be the actress but not the film director, contributes to many voters’ discomfort with Clinton because women, even when in leadership positions, are not expected to act like they actually want to be a leader. This helps explain the curious finding that when Clinton is in office, she is far more popular than when she is running for office, as many have reported.
It may also explain why her campaign website frames paid leave in terms of caring for a sick family member instead of sick leave when you yourself are sick. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that women’s use of sick time is often used in order to care for others. 40 percent of women reported that they alone take sick days to care for children, compared with 3 percent of men. In other words, the only culturally appropriate way for women to use sick time and not appear to be weak or unambitious is to care for their sick children, fulfilling various cultural expectations. Certainly letting the world know we are sick is not the best illustration of our qualifications for the job we seek.
And yet overall women live longer than men. To quote Harvard Medical School, “When it comes to health, men are the weaker sex throughout life.” Despite the display of “fragility” as she stepped into a waiting car last Sunday, Clinton sought medical care twice in the past month for the pneumonia.
Regular medical care is another factor in women’s ability to live longer than men. While the taking of such sick time is routinely perceived to be “for wimps,” it appears that Clinton’s health strategy – seeking care and taking time off the trail this week — is the more prudent one, at least when it comes to longevity.
It remains to be seen if it could also benefit her politically.
Hancock is an associate professor of gender studies, political science and sociology at the University of Southern California and the founder of RISIST: The Research Institute for the Study of Intersectionality and Social Transformation. Follow her on Twitter @AngeMarieH
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