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Sexual Politics: The 2016 Presidential Race Is Notable for Misogynist Rhetoric

October 13, 2016
by Krissy Eliot
Photo of HIllary Clinton during a debate

If gender discrimination is one of the most talked about issues in this election, all the fault can’t just be given to ye olde sexist citizens of America (though they can be given some credit—I’d say C+ for overall behavior, definitely room for improvement).

In fact, the fuss over gender is likely driven by what any political fuss is historically driven by: the powerful. Countless studies have proven this—including work by UC Berkeley’s own Gabriel Lenz, who in his book Follow the Leader? shows that voters largely don’t know the policies they prefer—but follow the preferences of candidates and elected officials.

“There’s much less evidence that in general, legislators or presidents are deriving their stances from where the people actually are,” says Rachel Bernhard, a Berkeley Ph.D. candidate in political science who has published many studies on how gender impacts elections. “They do a lot more weeding and shaping of those opinions than the other way around.”

“Sexism, and even more importantly and dangerously, misogyny are both rampant and the presence of a woman seeking our most symbolically powerful job has brought all the slimy things out into the light.”

So knowing this, it’s prudent to turn the spotlight on the two main people we’re all looking to right now to drive conversations: our Presidential Candidates! Trump has for much of his public life been accused of objectifying women. We can pretty much put a period on that one. But what about Clinton? How has her campaign affected gender’s prominence as an issue in this election?

While Trump quite directly focuses on gender, Clinton, who has experienced myriad instances of sexism over the last 40 years, actually discourages it—mostly with the tactic of avoidance and divergence.

“[Clinton] does try to avoid outright feminist statements, because she knows she will be eviscerated if she says them,” says Robin Lakoff, well-known feminist author and Berkeley linguistics professor emerita. “Sexism, and even more importantly and dangerously, misogyny are both rampant and the presence of a woman seeking our most symbolically powerful job has brought all the slimy things out into the light, aided and abetted by DJT. Trump isn’t totally responsible for the vile rhetoric, of course—but the fact that someone in his position gets away with saying and doing what he has said and done legitimizes these attitudes and behaviors.”

So rather than speak out vehemently against sexism and gender discrimination, it seems Clinton’s strategy has largely been to not address discrimination—letting the sexism speak for itself.

In the 2008 campaign, candidates were asked to name one thing they liked about another candidate, and one thing they disliked. During a debate, congressman John Edwards went right to commenting on Clinton’s clothes, saying, “I’m not sure about that coat.” Rather than tell him off, Clinton just smiled.

When Clinton was running for the Senate 16 years ago against Congressman Rick Lazio, he walked across the stage during the debate and tried to get her to sign a campaign finance pledge—getting very close to her. Clinton confusedly went to shake his hand, which he barely allowed before proceeding to brandish his finger at her, invading her personal space. She kept her eyes down, pursed her lips, and stepped back from him. A subtle move, but one that ultimately became what political reporter Hanna Kozolwaska called the “indelible image of the campaign” and that perhaps ultimately contributed to Lazio losing.

At a press conference in September, Clinton was asked to comment on RNC Chairman Reince Priebus’s tweet about her not smiling. Clinton dismissed the comment, telling reporters, “I’m going to let all of you ponder that last question. I think there will be a lot of Ph.D. theses and popular journalism writing on that subject for years to come.” She wasn’t, she added, going to make “political happy talk” when she had a short window of time “to convey the seriousness with which I would approach the issues that concern our country.”

And when Trump commented on Clinton’s appearance (at the first presidential debate), saying that she didn’t have “the look” or “the stamina” of a president, Clinton’s response was to divert attention away from the comments and to focus on job skills unrelated to gender.

“Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee,” Clinton said, “he can talk to me about stamina.”

Of course, her campaign hasn’t been wiped clean of gender discussion, but when it has been discussed, it’s been more ironic (see “the woman card” she’s selling on her website) or fact-based than fueled by emotion or contempt for inequality.

“I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions,” she states politely in this Humans of New York profile. “And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena,” Clinton said. “And if I create that perception, then I take responsibility. I don’t view myself as cold or unemotional. And neither do my friends. And neither does my family. But if that sometimes is the perception I create, then I can’t blame people for thinking that.”

“It is not playing the woman card to point out (1) that women can do many things at least as well as men; (2) that women still get treated unfairly in many ways.”

Clinton largely leaves it to others to take on the gender issue and speak for her—leaving the feminist viral videos and upcoming pantsuit power marches to the fans.

“Clinton is not—repeat, is not—playing the woman card, and never has…. The gender card, like the race card, is played by illegitimately making use of a racial or gender distinction,” wrote Robin Lakoff in an email. “It is not playing the woman card to point out (1) that women can do many things at least as well as men; (2) that women still get treated unfairly in many ways.”

Lakoff points out: “One could make a better case by saying that in using language the way he does, Trump is ‘playing the man card.’ But no one says that.”

Trump tries to distract with the gender issue, while Clinton tries to distract from the gender issue. One could argue it may be a bit irresponsible for Clinton to hold back and not challenge the sexism, but she is in a precarious position.

Lakoff says that she thinks Clinton should be more aggressive in talking about the sexism she has encountered, but also understands why she’s made the decisions she has.

“The kinds of things that are said at Trump’s rallies about Clinton are things that have never been said about any other candidates for president. Not only the B-word, but the C-word. Stuff about shooting her, hanging her—visceral rage—which has to be explained somehow,” Lakoff says. “I think the rage is sort of a psychological reverse defense mechanism. You start out being terrified, and it’s not manly to be terrified, so you turn the terror into anger and this is what you see coming out, and it’s very uncomfortable.”

It’s not entirely clear how Clinton’s strategy will fair if she gets elected, or what effect her avoidance tactics could ultimately have on the way American citizens perceive the gender issue. However, emerging political science suggests that despite pundit and/or candidate influence, the people aren’t as biased against women as they once were.

Sarah Anzia, Berkeley professor of political science, presented a series of studies done over the last 25 years at a California LIVE! event (co-sponsored by the Goldman School of Public Policy and the Cal Alumni Association, which produces this magazine) this September showing that women who run for the U.S. House of Representatives win as often as men do, that women raise and spend the same amount of money as male candidates, that gender stereotyping doesn’t lead voters to rate female candidates lower for likely effectiveness or favorability, and that in short when “Women run, women win.”

And a detailed analysis of nationally representative survey data from the 2010 midterms and local newspaper coverage from almost 350 U.S. House districts revealed citizens’ assessments and reporters’ portrayals of candidates primarily stemmed from ideology, partisanship, and incumbency.

So it’s possible that Clinton’s tactics to separate herself from being seen as only “a woman” and not as a capable politician could urge citizens in the positive direction they’re already headed—away from sexism.

Of course, after presenting the data, Anzia added that despite encouraging statistics, sexism has definitely been present in this election: “It appears that there has been a disproportionate focus on how Clinton looks—and on how she’s not smiling enough when she’s talking about ISIS,” Anzia says.

Having gender played up so much in this election will most likely have some after effects.

“If we never talked about her being a woman—the first woman to do this, the first woman to pass that—people wouldn’t link [gender] to her so much,” Bernhard says. “I do think talking about identity, and identity being relevant, will make whatever successes [Clinton] has and whatever failures she has, seen in light of her identity.” Which, according to Lakoff, could be good for women, particularly since so many think they don’t deserve to be in power and still have “imposter syndrome.”

On the other hand, Lakoff added, “When they see Clinton as this symbolic person at the forefront, they may think, ‘Maybe I’m not ready for this.’ She is going to force us all to look at women in a new way.”

Though it’s possible that new way could be even more negative than the old way. “As it is,” Berhard says, “I think it’s highly likely that if she is elected and she has failures in office, people will say, ‘See? This is why a woman isn’t suited to be president.’”

Of course, forecasting what will happen to Clinton if she’s elected is difficult to do, though some are trying. Recently, The Atlantic published a piece forecasting that “The Era of ‘The Bitch’ Is Coming” and that a Clinton victory “promises to usher in four to eight years of the kind of down-and-dirty public misogyny you might expect from a stag party at Roger Ailes’s house.”

But even if Clinton is thwarted by her gender when first entering office, that might change over time. Social science evidence suggests that one way to get rid of stereotypes is to expose biased people to the people they’re biased against.

“The more experience people have of the Other, whoever that Other is, the less they rely on negative stereotypes, and the more positively they feel about members of those groups,” Lakoff says. “So maybe seeing a woman on television and in the newspaper, being President every day, will reduce some of those negative attitudes. Seeing it makes it more positive, more imaginable. But again, we’ll just have to see.”

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