Hillary Clinton, sexism and the 2016 Presidential race: Is America ready for this? - Women's Agenda

Hillary Clinton, sexism and the 2016 Presidential race: Is America ready for this?

The announcement that Hillary Clinton is running for US President was so unsurprising it felt like we’d already heard all about it. The response so far has been fairly predictable too.

But there’s an extra level of unease about the bid that would have been unlikely if a man had made the same announcement.

While attitudes to women in power have changed a little in the last few years, it’s not too long since our former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was facing regular sexism and scrutiny that her male predecessors would never have encountered.

It remains to be seen whether the times have changed and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign will attract less of this sexism than in the 2008 Democratic primaries.

Not long after Barack Obama won the Presidential nomination, I interviewed US feminist and author Laura Liswood, a senior adviser and former Managing Director, Global Leadership and Diversity for Goldman Sachs.

One of her other roles is founder of the White House Project, a campaign with the goal of seeing the first woman into the US Presidency. The normally resilient and pragmatic Liswood – I’d interviewed her before – was quite clearly shocked by the level of sexism and vitriol Clinton faced during the primaries. This ranged from verbal abuse and innuendo right through to gimmicks such as Hillary Clinton shaped nutcrackers.

The details of the discrimination were one thing, said Liswood. But it was the speed with which this kind of response was normalised that was deeply shocking to her and showed how much work still needed to be done to legitimise women as leaders.

When women start to challenge for high office and formal power roles the veneer which can lull us into thinking we’re making progress to a more tolerant society can quickly get stripped back.

And while, like many others, I am relieved to see a woman finally become a candidate for one of the world’s most powerful jobs, the prospect of the coming campaign and the use of gender to reinforce inadequacies looms.

Because there are so few women leaders in government or business there’s still a tendency to see their every step and mistakes as emblematic of their entire gender’s inadequacies, while ignoring or downplaying similar faults in men.

This is sometimes called the ‘mote beam mechanism’ by academics who study prejudice. It’s when the faults of individuals in marginalised groups are used to justify pre-existing biases even though those faults (prejudices, blind spots, aggressiveness) in members of the mainstream group are viewed far more neutrally or even favourably.

Then there are all the old favourite criticisms that are used to condemn women leaders because they just don’t sound ‘right’ – which means they don’t sound like an alpha male. It’s the way women speak (too shrill or wooden) to the way they deal with questions (too snappy) or even of course how they look (too mumsy).

In fact, some of the coverage of Clinton’s announcement has already refocused attention on a core criticism which maintains she is warm and vibrant in person but stony and cold in public. This was often directed at Julia Gillard too. When you consider the tightrope women are walking when they scale the ranks, and the relentless attention they get, it’s probably not surprising.

I hope there’s a new level of sophistication in how Hillary Clinton and her campaign is assessed. That her ideas feature more than her hair styles, that it’s what she says and not the tone of her voice that commands attention, that her gender is seen as a strength and not an excuse to denigrate her. That her candidacy faces exactly the same scrutiny as her rival and not a whole lot more.

The signs are that Clinton is firmly staking her campaign on owning rather than trying to sidestep the gender question, and her short announcement video featuring many women and girls. That’s a good start.

Gender at the top of politics, as Julia Gillard said in her final speech as PM, doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things. And it is for the nation to think in a sophisticated way about those shades of grey.

Are we there yet?


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