Civil Rights

The sexist way we pile on Hillary Clinton and stifle women in democracy

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Early in the run up to the 2008 U.S. presidential election, I was a guest on a Jamaican morning radio show when one of its hosts asked me to make a prediction: Would the U.S. be more likely to elect its first African American president or its first female president?

After a brief pause (after all the data and jury was still out at that point), I argued that the country was likely to elect a black man before a white woman because it would mirror the historical sequence at which these groups got the franchise (black men received the Constitutional right to vote, on paper at least, 50 years before women were granted that right).

Although my forecasting method was crude given all of the variables involved in modern elections, Barack Obama did go on to win the presidency, suggesting that — like the sequencing of the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments — men, regardless of race, have more social status and power than women in the U.S.

It is sad to say that, by and large, this seems to be is as true today as it was almost 150 years ago. Given the current state of our national politics, it is important to parse this observation in the context of journalistic coverage of the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, especially now that Hillary Clinton seeks to reestablish her public presence on the national stage.

The level of vitriol she has received from mostly male commentators as she has shared her thoughts about the election’s results — with one journalist telling her to “shut up and go home” — has been on par with that she was subject to during the campaign itself.

And since almost all of the most prominently circulated political journalists are men, it’s worth asking if most men, regardless of background, possess the analytical capacity to provide an accurate assessment of what happened to Secretary Clinton’s candidacy independent of their deeply ingrained socialized biases.

This question is especially urgent as long form pieces like the one written by Joshua Zeitz in Politico Magazine, called “Why Do They Hate Her?” begin to shape the post-election narratives that will likely influence the historical record. A historian by training, Zeitz conducts an elaborate examination of how Hillary Clinton’s treatment compares to—get this—other male presidential candidates over time.

While use of the male standard could be interpreted as a reflection of the seriousness by which the nation took her candidacy, Zeitz’s apples to oranges comparison ignores the stories of women who have previously run for the office.

Indeed, his approach causes Zeitz to mistakenly surmise that the criminalization that Secretary Clinton experienced (i.e., Benghazi, emails, a private server, “Crooked Hillary”, and “lock her up”) had never before “transpired in American history.”

One only has to look to Victoria Woodhull — the first woman to ever run for the U.S. presidency, who was called “Mrs. Satan” by a prominent male journalist and actually thrown in jail on spurious charges just before election day — to understand the female-candidate-as-criminal playbook is more than a century old.

Perhaps even more interesting than the historical similarities that the Woodhull and Clinton candidacies evoke, is the fact that journalists who have been apt to point it out have been women.

This suggests that the gender of journalists matters not just because they are quicker to identify societal double standards that kick in when a woman is on the ticket but also because they may be more likely to pay attention to the full spectrum of too often marginalized history that can lend better insight into contemporary events.

But what about the female columnists who have also been calling for Hillary to stop rehashing her opinions about the election in public? Perhaps a sign of cooptation, these journalists are forgetting that campaign reflections by major party candidates are customary following elections. And yet, male candidates aren’t told to shut up or stop blaming others.

These reflections are usually welcomed for their ability to give historians and the public an opportunity to peer into the minds of the most authoritative subject matter experts on each campaign: the candidates themselves.

That some are attempting to shame Hillary Clinton into giving up her right to share her perspective on her own candidacy is in and of itself a sorry double standard.

Regardless of where you stand on Secretary Clinton’s campaign reflections, it is an unassailable fact that the glass ceiling remains intact for women running for the highest office in the land.

It is important for several things to occur to prevent patriarchal power dynamics from making it a half-century or more before the nation elects a female president.

First, women need to bum rush the system by running for office in droves at every level of government. The historic number of women signing up for Emily’s List and other political training programs is a positive sign.

Yet it is important that this movement not be a temporary wave but a permanent part of the political landscape.

Second, it’s important to call a spade a spade by pointing out sexist double standards as they happen. In our male-dominated system, the identity, attitudes and perspectives of men are normalized and affirmed while those held by women or non-gender conforming individuals are actively suppressed or pathologized.

This needs to stop.

Individuals, irrespective of gender, deserve equal treatment, not double standards.

Third, it is important for journalists to learn de-biasing techniques in journalism school so that they develop the critical thinking skills that allow them to not only deconstruct historically derived cultural biases but to have enough self-awareness to know when they have been unduly influenced by them. 

This can help drive more balanced coverage of male and female candidates in the future.

Finally, people need to stop piling on to Hillary Clinton.

Allow this public servant the dignity and space to go through her own process of reflecting on and reconciling her historic candidacy without having to be incessantly mocked, shamed, or silenced. 

She is allowed her own opinions.

Let’s hear them and respect them.

The 2016 election and its outcomes illuminated plenty of mistakes made by candidates and journalists alike. These mistakes will have consequences for the nation and world for years to come. 

Yet, a mature society is supposed to learn from and correct its mistakes.

Given the stakes, we would be doing a grave disservice to our country if we fail to end the sexist double standards that continue to shape our politics.

Maya Rockeymoore is a political scientist, former instructor of women’s studies, author, speaker, and social entrepreneur. She is the President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions LLC and the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a think tank and action organization based in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama Barack Obama Democracy Hillary Clinton Hillary Clinton Voting Women Women's rights
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