Feminist Fridays: “When Your Presidential Front-Runner is a Woman” Edition | Vol. 2 / No. 24.1

Now that she's decisively running as Hillary, is it sexist to call her by her first name? Photo: Flickr user Mike Mozart, CC BY 2.0
Now that she’s decisively running as Hillary, is it sexist to call her by her first name? Photo: Flickr user Mike Mozart, CC BY 2.0

In this week’s #FeministFriday, Lindsey’s here with all the best tips on staying sane while the media react to a woman being the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nod. My protip may involve gin. #sorrynotsorry


So to absolutely no one’s surprise, former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced that she is running for president. Which means that Clinton, and the American public, are in for a year and a half of twitch-inducing sexism, concern-trolling, and vitriol. It’s gonna be a fun couple of years, isn’t it? But there are a couple things that we need to get sorted out if we are all going to stay sane. Namely, how sexism is and isn’t operating when it comes to the way people speak about, and respond to, Clinton.

Over at Cosmopolitan, Jill Filipovic has a very good breakdown of the particular pressures that Clinton faces, and what it means to either support her or not support her. Long story short? If you don’t like Clinton for political reasons, that is totally cool! She has opinions and platforms that might not jive with yours. If you don’t like Clinton because she’s a woman, that is totally not cool. We should be judging candidates on their merits, not their gender.* The more nuanced point that Filipovic makes that is also important to remember is that sexism aimed at Clinton isn’t always blatant. As Filipovic argues, even though calling a candidate “inexperienced” seems like an objective criticism, knocking Clinton for being “inexperienced” when she has as much experience as, if not more than, her male counterparts smacks of sexism. If we aren’t applying criticisms equally to all of the parties that are deserving of that particular criticism, then we aren’t really being fair.

This idea that seemingly objective criticism can be used in sexist ways may be what prompted a group calling themselves the “HRC Super Volunteers” to create a list of sexist “code words” they don’t want to see being applied to Clinton during the campaign: “polarizing,” “calculating,” “disingenuous,” “insincere,” “ambitious,” “inevitable,” “entitled,” “over-confident,” “secretive,” “will do anything to win,” “represents the past,” and “out of touch.”  (Protip: these may soon be the only descriptors Fox “News” allows its correspondents to use to describe her). The group argues that these words are “coded sexism,” like Filipovic’s example of “inexperienced”: that, as Aaron Blake explains, the “words are attached to Clinton in a way that they wouldn’t be attached to male candidates.”

And in some cases, I believe this is true. “Ambitious” is used as a pejorative for women, while it is often applied to men as a compliment (remember, women aren’t supposed to have ambitions! We’re supposed to sit quietly in a room until someone deigns to give us a job. Otherwise we’re “ball busters” and “bitches.”) But many of these words would be fine, as long as they are also being applied to male candidates. I think we could certainly call Ted Cruz “disingenuous” for making his announcement at an event students were forced to attend in order to make it seem like he had a giant room full of supporters. (And he had to practice kissing his wife. Which is just… weird.) Rand Paul acted pretty “entitled” when he shushed a female reporter for asking questions he didn’t like. And I think that Jeb Bush counts as “representing the past” when he’s the third potential Bush president. (Isn’t it fun how we totally have a meritocracy and everyone can be president, except for the part where the race is probably going to end up coming down to members of two political dynasties? Democracy is great.) Again, the point here is equal treatment. We don’t have to treat Clinton with kid gloves just because she is a woman. We just need to treat her the same way that we treat her male opponents.

That being said, it is disingenuous (haha, vocab word) to claim as Cathy Young does that being aware of sexism and responding to it is being “thin-skinned,” or to say “Even letting the occasional sexist insult slide is better than crying sexism.”

…what? Is there some kind of quota system on noticing and calling out sexism? “I’m sorry ma’am, but you’ve already pointed out five people today that called you a bitch so you’re at your quota, you should probably let the comment about you going through menopause slide.” That’s not the way that things work. Sure, sometimes you get tired of bullshit to the point that you let some things slide (sometimes it seems like it’s just more trouble than it’s worth to call someone out for staring at your breasts, which is one of the sadder sentences I’ve ever had to write). But that doesn’t mean that some instances of sexism don’t matter, or that we shouldn’t be looking at both the little and big pictures. Just because something is an arguably “smaller” instance of sexism doesn’t mean that it isn’t still sexism. It is, and it still matters.

Now, I haven’t read the same sources that Young has, so I can’t definitively deny her assertions that “being female is an asset for a political candidate in America: Voters tend to perceive women in more positive terms than men” and that “male politicians are no less likely to have their appearance mentioned in newspaper articles — and that voters don’t judge women in politics more harshly over personal appearance.”

However, I am still tempted to call bullshit for one particular reason. And that reason is Twitter.

If you were hoping for the American people to respond in a nuanced, respectful way to a woman announcing that she would like to be president… oh honey. It’s nice to have dreams. Instead, abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Trending with the hashtag #WhyI’mNotVotingForHillary, some esteemed members of Twitter responded to Clinton’s announcement with a torrent of vile, sexist trash. Some real gems include @isaacmorales559 declaration that “She’s a lying ass c**t who rides on Monsanto’s dick,” @SociallyLogical’s succinct “To put it bluntly: Bitch is crazy!” @hoopsmcgoops’s “She’s a grumpy old c**t with zero political savvy or ability to lead,” @Dbargen’s retweet “RT @WingDynasty: I want to preserve America as a Constitutional republic. Also, she’s fugly,” and @PrisonPlanet’s truly thoughtful summation, “Her entire appeal appears to rest solely on the fact that she has a vagina.” I may be crazy, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these are instances of voters viewing a woman less positively than a man and judging her more harshly for her appearance. Now admittedly these are a carefully selected subsection of internet hatred, but still, I just had to censor the C-word way, way more times than I ever want to have to type that word. About a woman who is trying to become president of the United States.

Now as I said last week regarding Vani Hari, there is a difference between being criticized for being a woman and being criticized while being a woman. If your issue with Clinton is about her foreign policy record, or her stance on healthcare, or the way she’s tight with Wall Street, that’s fine. No one is forcing you to vote for her (and on that note—it isn’t a “feminist stance” to say that you have to vote for Hillary Clinton just because she’s a woman. Reducing people to their biology is kinda the opposite of what feminism is supposed to do). But if you’re not voting for her simply because she is a woman, then something is wrong. We need to be aware of, and react to, the sexism that happens surrounding her campaign, whether people are calling her the C-word or “inexperienced.”

I know that wanting to have a civil election season is a lot to ask for, and even asking for all candidates to be criticized equally can seem like a stretch. But for the sake of this twitch I’m developing, can we give it a try?


Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week in Tomorrow. When she’s not helping webizens cope with sexism in the media, she studies gender in popular culture. 


*Edit: an earlier version of this post read “genitalia” instead of “gender.” It was pointed out by one of our thoughtful readers that this was exclusive wording when it comes to the category of “women,” and so the post has been updated to reflect this.