For the first time in the history of the United States, we have the possibility of having a female president. President Barack Obama ended the debate as to whether we would have a female or a person of color first as the Commander-in-Chief, but it still feels like a pretty big deal that we could possibly have two history-making presidents in a row. With all of this potential for powerful movement toward positive social change, why is it that there is not more excitement about Clinton’s candidacy? Why did Gloria Steinem feel that she needed to chide female millennial voters that they were letting down all women when they excitedly supported Bernie Sanders? Why is an older guy from Brooklyn even capable of being viewed as an exciting alternative while the first female candidate is deemed representative of old Washington politics? I am going to do my best to address these issues from the psychological perspective. I have to admit that I want so much to love Hillary, but have really struggled with it, and this challenge drove me to research and write this essay. To me, it comes down to three huge challenges, all of which are very much unique to being a woman in power.
Man Problem #1: Breaking the Glass Ceiling
The public version of Hillary Clinton really came to exist when Bill Clinton started his road to the White House. As the first First Lady to enter the White House with a graduate degree and active career, she was presented as an option for First Lady that was not going to be all fluff and Easter Egg hunts; Hillary was someone who had an amazing head on her shoulders and education to match. Her experience with politics actually had some pretty deep roots, and she had been raised by a politically conservative family. She had initially identified with the Republican party, but also was very active on social justice issues. She was president of the Young Republicans during her early years in undergraduate at Wellesley, but then found herself supporting the Democratic party because she felt that some of the Republican message was racist in nature. She went on to earn her law degree from Yale, and had been the first woman to be appointed as chair of the Legal Services Corporation and became the first female partner at Rose Law Firm. While she was doing post-graduate work, she was part of the impeachment inquiry staff for the Watergate Scandal. Hillary Rodham was being groomed for her own political career.
She says that her career took a major shift when she finally agreed to marry Bill Clinton and followed her heart (and his career) to Arkansas; the back story was that she had also taken the bar exam in Arkansas and Washington, DC, and only passed the Arkansas bar. When she became the first Lady of Arkansas, she worked to reform the public school system and also served on corporate boards. Hillary Clinton fought from the start to break the glass ceiling that women have experienced, and brought her drive to the White House. When she became First Lady of the United States in 1993, she made healthcare her major focus. Michael Moore summarized her efforts at establishing universal healthcare in his 2007 documentary, Sicko. The establishment was able to get her voice silenced, and she moved back to smaller achievements. She had hit the First Lady’s version of a glass ceiling, one that she had hoped to shatter.
As Bill Clinton wrapped up his presidency, Hillary started to make some movement toward her own political career, constantly breaking new ground for the role of First Lady. She was encouraged to run as Senator for New York, and bought a property in New York state to allow for her participation in the race. Despite being heavily criticized her her lack of connection to New York, she won 55% of the vote and became Senator of New York. Within her first year in office, New York City went through the 911 attack, and she was heavily involved in supporting the war in Iraq and the recovery of NYC. It is reported that she was intentional about creating relationships on both sides of the aisle, as she likely had learned the necessity of having support across political parties. She announced her candidacy for presidency in 2007, but some reports state that she had been slowly building to a presidential run since her first term as senator. Although she was unable to secure the presidential nomination, she was able to demonstrate significant support of Barack Obama and was placed as his Secretary of State. She continued her movement with working across the political aisle, although definitely was much more openly criticized when she was in this much more prominent role. When she announced her current campaign for presidency, it was assumed that she would be an easy front-runner, and the “woman card” was almost guaranteed to be the key in her landslide win. Young women, however, tended to lean toward the more liberal candidate, Bernie Sanders, and Gloria Steinem, one of the early pacesetters of women’s liberation, shamed any women who supported Sanders. The challenge with a lot of the young female voters is that they have not witnessed the breaking of many glass ceilings, and certainly did not care to be told that they should support Hillary Clinton because they share the same gender. For Hillary, the “woman card” comes with a lot of baggage and not a tremendous amount of benefit.
Doubting the capacity for leadership for women is a topic that is seriously as old as humanity itself. The biggest argument through time has always been that the menstrual cycle itself can affect a woman’s judgement, and this will create horrific problems. I can remember being a younger child and boys in class joking that a female president with PMS could push the nuclear button just out of a hormonal rage- sounded pretty scary to me. Out of curiosity, I googled “menstrual and presidency” and found an article in The Blaze which summarized an American Imam’s fear that Hillary Clinton could do that very thing. He stated, “What if she’s on her menses and it is time to go to war? She’s gonna press the button ‘cause she’s angry?” The title of Commander-in-Chief also directly engages with the glass ceiling, because we tend to visualize men as commanders. Historically, men have been much more present in the military, particularly military leadership. The combat exclusion for women in the military was only lifted in 2013- imagine asking people to respect the leadership of a person who they know has never experienced real combat conditions! Only four women in history have achieved the rank of four-star general.
One last note, there is a term that is often used for powerful women: bitch. I have already seen several bumper stickers in support of Trump that refer to Hillary Clinton as a bitch, and this really disturbs me. There is a terrible double standard in which men who are aggressive in business are viewed as very effective, while women who are aggressive in business are often viewed as being bitchy. For women in power to sustain charisma, they have to develop a good balance between warmth and confidence, a balance that is only expected in female leaders. In the workplace, there can be a smart versus warm trade-off, in which women have to ensure that warmth comes across to have their opinions trusted. Hillary faces that significant challenge, as she is a very brilliant woman who American voters will also need to project incredible warmth to sustain a trusted position.
Man Problem #2: Standing by Your Man
Hillary’s public image has always had one consistent polarizing factor: her marriage to Bill Clinton. The idea of “standing by your man” is really hotly debated and Hillary actually introduced her disdain for this concept when she was interviewed about Bill’s suspected affair with Gennifer Flowers. She stated, “I’m not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” Bill, of course, later admitted to having sexual relations with Gennifer Flowers in the deposition for the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit. Hillary’s image went into even more a spiral when the Monica Lewinsky scandal came out in 1998. It would seem really plausible that her past experience with the Watergate Inquiry created some additional depth to the wounding she experienced with the Lewinsky scandal. The public became very split by the scandal, with many demanding that she should leave Bill and criticizing her for remaining with him. It is hard to imagine someone as brilliant as Hillary going through press about Bill’s possible infidelity multiple times within the public eye, and consistently sticking to his side. Some people felt that she had navigated personal challenges with poise, while others accused her of enabling his infidelity. There was even some speculation that her decision to remain in her marriage was actually a calculated political choice. It seems possible that this is a choice that has given her some substantial dividends, as Bill’s presence on the campaign trail tends to draw positive press, but it likely carries some substantial personal sacrifice. Hillary has been quoted as saying that there is no one who excites her and engages her quite like Bill Clinton, which can make you question whether charming Hillary was one of his greatest feats. It definitely seems that his charm has kept him from feeling all of the consequences of his infidelity, despite the fact that it has been very much in the public eye.
The relationship challenges also fold into a constant criticism that is actually very unique to female candidates: her appearance. True, there is intense mockery of Donald Trump’s hair, because not mocking it would be like ignoring the elephant in the room, but Hillary’s physical appearance comments never stop with hair. Sarah Palin actually received similar treatment in the 2008 election, when it was estimated that $150,000 was spent to make sure that she did not appear to be an average hockey mom. Harper’s Bazaar did a review of Hillary’s fashion through the years in June, and the New York Post ran an article discussing her wardrobe as part of her political strategy. There is consideration about color choices, hair accessories, and whether or not she has purchased her own clothing. Admittedly, John Edwards was criticized for getting a $400 hair cut, but no male candidate has every been consistently evaluated by clothing choices, and never really will be due to the simplicity of the male political uniform- the most interesting part of their attire is often the tie and/or the shoes. Funny enough, when I checked to see if there were any articles written about Donald Trump’s clothing, I instead found that he has a Donald Trump clothing line! Amazingly enough, you can own a Donald Trump suit for around $200.
Man Problem #3: Politics versus Integrity
Bill Clinton’s presidency was wrought with ethics charges and inquiry, and it would have been really great for Hillary to be able to create a clear distinction from his legacy. Frankly, she was off to a great start when she cleanly won the NY Senate seat and handled the 911 crisis in ways that increased public trust. She developed a name for herself as being someone who could lead collaboratively, and was open to the viewpoints of even political rivals. The challenge she faced was that there was always some borderline involvement on her part with the scandals from Bill Clinton’s past, and her movement into increased leadership placed her more and more under the microscope. Bill Clinton has his clear scandals: Whitewater and Lewinsky, and Hillary eventually collected some of her own: Benghazi and e-mail server. The Benghazi attack brought into question Hillary’s ability to manage security threats and accurately assess Diplomatic needs in distressed areas. She was also questioned in the manner in which the information was disseminated, with some accusations that there had been some possible attempts at political spin to cover her mistake.
Although the Senate cleared her of wrongdoing, this issue remains one of the major challenges to her leadership. We have to remember that this was not the first or last time that Hillary had testified in an inquiry to political actions, and this theme tends to make the public quite distrustful. To me, she has an additional burden with the fact that she cannot even begin to mimic the swagger that could be sustained by Bill Clinton, which makes it difficult to endear her to the general public. While her main opponent for the general election, Donald Trump, can make major errors in statements, Hillary Clinton is held to a higher standard for her words- this is the legacy of overcoming scandal in your past and not developing general like-ability in the process. The e-mail server issue has added fuel to fire, because it makes her appear to be somewhat incompetent with security issues- a major challenge for the intended Commander-in-Chief. Many people have been disappointed that she has not been brought on charges, and challenge that her connections within politics and outside have created a softer landing than was given to others. General David Petraeus had to plea in a similar investigation, but the difference between these two cases was intent for disclosure. It is fascinating to me that the Trump camp has jumped all over Hillary Clinton saying that she is “crooked,” seeing as his own business dealings leave him vulnerable to investigation. Feels like he was probably on a better path with his “heartless Hillary” approach, because her warmth is really her biggest struggle for connection.
I am not a millennial voter, but I am part of the newer generation of women who are just disconnected enough from the women’s rights movements to struggle with whether or not the glass ceiling is real. The numbers definitely back up the fact that women do not yet have equal footings with men in the workplace or politics. From a pop culture perspective, Hillary Clinton is closer to the Judy King character on the most recent season of Orange is The New Black, and it can seem concerning that her years of privilege can feel more palpable than her uphill battle and her hits against the glass ceiling. Understanding her imperfections, and some of my own resistance has actually helped me to feel more supportive of her as a leader.