Hillary’s Hurdle: The Effects of Gender and Sexism on Professional Women


Hillary Clinton might lose the presidency, and even the nomination, because she is a woman. Among Sanders’ fans who support him with militant millennialism, or Trump supporters who talk about women as if they were dogs, this statement will likely be written off. I might be seen as another worried supporter crying sexism to distract from the actual shortcomings and missteps of Clinton’s campaign. But call off the Berniebots and silence the Trumpeters, because I aim not to qualify my decision to vote for Hillary nor to challenge yours not to. Pointing to professional gender norms and the role of sexism in the media, I aim instead to trace Hillary’s backlash to her gender performance, illustrating the double binds that obstruct paths to success by holding professional women at higher standards than their male counterparts.

Performing gender doesn’t happen in a social vacuum. It happens, rather, in a world of social hierarchies and pressures that enforce expectations and consequences of performance. Women and men are held to different standards of self-presentation, with male-associated behavior more suited for professional success. Tyler Okimoto and Victoria Brescoll’s (2010) study of women in power shows that ambitious women tend to engender feelings of anger and contempt from their male counterparts. These feelings likely come from the cultural understanding of women as “communal”- kind, sensitive and caring, and men as “agentic”-aggressive, competitive, and assertive. Women in public leadership positions who exhibit behaviors not traditionally associated with their gender often risk backlash, even if these behaviors are necessary for their job or position. This theory gains credence from a 2008 study in which male and female participants both “assigned less status” to women who exhibited competitiveness, strong leadership styles, authoritative rhetoric, and ambition (note that each of these characteristics are intrinsic to the demeanor of a president).

Gendered expectations force women to do intense identity work to prove their qualifications and capabilities both as a woman and as a professional. As a result, women can “easily cross the line and appear to be insufficiently feminine- that is, not “nice” enough” (Carroll 2009, 6). Sociologist Rosabeth Moss Kanter comments on this dynamic in her work on gender and tokenism, laying out four common stereotypes and associated identities forced upon professional women. Three of these four identities are markedly feminine (the seductress, mother, and pet), while one bares masculine undertones (the iron maiden). The latter is implicitly critical, using masculine imagery to shame strong women. This unfairly places women into roles they may or may not identity with, since “women inducted into the iron maiden role are stereotyped as tougher than they are (hence the name) and trapped in a more militant stance than they might otherwise take” (Kanter 984, 1977).

Viewed by many as an iron maiden, Clinton bears harsh attacks for her perceived lack of femininity. As articulated by Diana B. Carlin and Kelly Winfrey, in the 2008 race, “both Clinton’s physical appearance and her choice of pantsuits over skirts and dresses were the source of considerable derision.” Public figures speak often and sharply of Clinton’s appearance. Rush Limbaugh in 2008 contrasted Clinton with Sarah Palin by saying that Clinton is “not going to remind anybody of their ex-wife, she’s going to remind men, ‘Gee, I wish she was single’’ (Carlin and Winfrey 2009, 331, 338). The double standard therefore extends to the media by creating a platform to judge men on a basis of merit while women, as illustrated by Limbaugh’s statement, are judged by personality, physical attractiveness, and gender performance. FOX news contributor Tucker Carlson once said of Hillary: “when she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs.” This statement directly paints Clinton as a danger to men everywhere, reinforcing the harmful characterization of powerful women as threats to male-dominated institutions.

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Journalists bear equal blame for negatively reporting on Clinton’s gender performance. Prominent amongst these pen-yielding mudslingers is New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, whose scathing columns boil to the brim with sexist sentiment. In a 2015 column, Dowd described Clinton as a “granny” who should learn to “campaign as a woman.” Dowd, who once called Clinton “the manliest candidate,” later criticized her as over-feminizing, stating that she “should have run as a man this time.” From these wildly offensive (and contradictory) statements to the claim the Hillary “killed feminism,” Dowd and reporters like her use Hillary’s sex as a weapon of slander and hate, harming public perception by shaming her non-hegemonic gender performance.

Some media sexism comes in abrasive and obvious forms, like calling Hillary “shrill” or “bitchy,” but the majority of it comes by subtly addressing female candidates with less respect than their male opponents. As discovered in Joseph Uscinski and Lilly Goren’s 2010 study of the 2008 Democratic Primary, both sexes tend to call men by their titles and women by their first names. In the 2008 primaries, Clinton was referenced in newspaper coverage “by first name 3 percent more [than opponent Barack Obama) and her title of Senator was omitted 15 percent more.” On television, Clinton was referenced by first name four times more than Obama was. These seemingly minute and peripheral statistics actually resonate deeply within the dynamics of a campaign. As Uscinsi and Goren (2010) found, “referencing a woman by a first name may project an image of inferiority to the audience.” The media therefore disadvantages Clinton not only through overt sexism, but by subtly painting her as a less viable candidate.

Hillary Clinton is, and always has been, a polarizing figure. Her long career of spotlight scrutiny left her seasoned with scars, dividing the American public sharply between champions and critics. As a fellow on Clinton’s campaign who spent months canvassing door-to-door, I heard time and time again that people like her policies but not her personality, her vision but not her voice, her ideas but not her identity. These criticisms come largely from those who see Hillary as a threat to hegemonic gender norms, and who watch, unsettled, as she every day cuts cracks in the glass ceiling not with a stiletto or kitchen knife, but with her own two hands. We need to stop pretending that the playing field is level. Like it or not, Hillary Clinton is not a man. She’s a woman (a strong woman), and it’s time we stopped punishing her for it.

4 thoughts on “Hillary’s Hurdle: The Effects of Gender and Sexism on Professional Women”

  1. Hey, Stephen!

    Cool points here. I like that you bring up the perception of “masculine” women as inherently emasculating figures. I’m interested to hear how you think women who share many of Clinton’s viewpoints and aesthetic tendencies fit into the equation. Elizabeth Warren strikes me as one woman who shares many of Clinton’s traits, but does not receive the same criticism. It also bears further inspection that women who fit gender-normative roles don’t seem to acquire as much political cachet as their more traditionally “masculine” counterparts. Is traditionally masculine presentation, however distasteful men may find it, a pre-requisite for women to become prominent political figures? It seems that that might be the case.

    I agree that many refer to Hillary with blatantly sexist terminology (I will kirk on the next person who says the word “harpy” in my presence), but I don’t know if I buy that people using her first name more often is another manifestation of that sexism. Hillary’s campaign has used her first name as their brand both times she’s run; so far as I can tell, none of her official merchandise from either 2008 or now features her last name at all. Her first hashtag this election cycle was #ReadyforHillary. Bernie’s done the same thing. This is in contrast to this cycle’s GOP candidates and all the other 2008 candidates, who have exclusively used their last names on their branded merchandise. I won’t discount the possibility that calling her by her first name is a manifestation of unconscious sexism, but her campaign also actively encourages that behavior; I just don’t think we can say for certain. Besides, is it not in some sense a subversive act to refer to a married woman by her own name, rather than by her husband’s?

    Anyway, good post! As a proud Bernie supporter (and at times Clinton detractor), I’ve also been shocked by the blatantly sexist rhetoric many of the people who claim to be on my side are spouting. You’d think they were voting for Trump. Keep calling folks out. Lord knows you’ll never run out of opportunities.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jake (this comment was great…it could have been its own blog post!).
      In response to your question, yes, I believe that many professional and political women perform similar types of gender as Clinton does. You pointed out Elizabeth Warren…she’s a perfect example. Warren and Clinton display themselves very similarly, yet Warren faces not half of the criticism Clinton does. I think this boils down to two facts: 1) Hillary has been in the political spotlight of scrutiny longer, and she has scars to show from it. 2) Elizabeth Warren was not the first lady. I think that Hillary’s previous role as first lady plays a role in shaping her identity….she likely gets such strong backlash from going from a stereotypically very feminine role to a normatively very masculine one. Few other politicians face this same situation.
      You argue correctly that Clinton’s campaign itself uses “Hillary” and that much of this has to do with her marital status to a president who shares her last name. But I’m arguing that the media perpetuates sexist norms by using her first name more than they use the first names of her male counterparts, regardless of her choice to market herself as “Hillary.” Even this election season I’ve noticed that newscasters often call Clinton “Hillary,” but refer to Bernie as “Senator Sanders” (even though he and his campaign market his first name). I see your points and agree with them, but I think that there is more to the picture. Sexist norms without a doubt are at play.

      You rightfully call out Bernie supporters for their sexist (and often hateful) rhetoric towards Secretary Clinton. I’m wondering if you think that Bernie himself plays a role in this. Has he not himself engaged in extreme sexism, whether by commenting on the pitch of her voice or by claiming that Hillary, a two-time senator and former Secretary of State, is “unqualified” to be president?

      Thanks for the comment and for reading my post!

  2. Hey Stephen- loved your post. Also, I loved reading Jake’s comment and then your response.

    I think this is all extremely interesting and I’m really glad you wrote about this. Truthfully, I have been meaning to do my part to understand how sexism is effecting Hillary’s campaign but haven’t really made it a priority, so this is the first thing I have actually read about it (though I have talked about it with some friends). In particular I am referring to when a friend of mine implied that voting against Hillary in the primary was anti-feminist. Her argument was that if Hillary was a man, Bernie would have no chance at winning the nomination. She argued that the only reason Hillary is not completely dominating is because she is a woman. Of course, like I said before, I really don’t have enough information on this to put down an informed opinion… That being said, I actually think it is anti-feminist to elect a President because she is a woman only. In order for women to be taken seriously in politics, we need to make sure we are electing our President based on their policies and not on their gender. Using Hillary as a token “woman President” will only compel people to claim we are entering a “post-sexist society” and “gender-blindness” like they did when we elected our first black President (“post-racial society” and “color-blindness”). This, of course, is not what you are arguing about in your blog post and I don’t want to imply that you were at all. I more wanted to share a bit about what I have heard about this topic. Also, your blogpost just kind of got me thinking about finding a place for my vote in this election as a feminist. Who is the most feminist candidate? Is it Hillary because she is a woman? Honestly, I could rant about this for a long time because as woman Trump supporters show, just because you are a woman does not mean you are a feminist. That being said, can a man ever truly understand the pervasive nature of feminism? And to what extent can politicians create policies that concern women if they are not women themselves? Again, there is so much to say about this…

    But going back to your blog post… I think it is incredibly well written and I really appreciate the way you explain your intentions of the blog post. You are not trying to make people Hillary supporters, but rather point out how her career is undeniably different because she is a woman. I completely agree that the way she is written about and talked about is deeply sexist and honestly absurd. I think it would be interesting to compare Hillary’s portrayal in the media with other women in a wider context. Think about the way that women athletes are interviewed in the media, for example. The focus of many interviews are not on their athletic performance but on their gender performance (their outfits and hair). Can you imagine someone commenting on a man’s outfit? No. That would be ridiculous, right? But for some reason, it is widely accepted in society to ask women about their gender performance. I also think it would be interesting to look into how complacency with these issues perpetuates them. As a society, we objectify and discriminate women, often without even consciously doing so.

    Anyway, good job on your post and I’m interested to learn more.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful comment! You make several interesting points. You are certainly not the first woman who has struggled with the Hillary question and whether or not supporting her is a ‘female duty.’ I agree with you that voting for Hillary on the sole basis of her gender is actually anti-feminist. Since I view feminism not only as equal rights but as equal choice, I believe that all women should feel and free to vote for whomever they please (except Trump of course…kidding!) without pressure or coercion. However, I do not think that it is anti-feminist to take Hillary’s gender into account. Like it or not, Hillary’s womanhood is part of her identity, campaign, and being. It cannot be ignored. While I think it foolish to vote for her only because of her gender, I do think that electing a female president is an important step towards shattering the glass ceiling and achieving true equality. As a feminist myself, I can say that Hillary’s gender does play into my decision to support her. In my mind, if both democratic candidates would make good presidents and I agree with most of their policies, then being swayed towards one because of her gender is not bad or anti-feminist (it’s worth noting that I did not vote for Hillary just because of her gender. I support her because I see her as a fierce advocate of equal rights for women, the LGBT community, and all minorities, and because I think that Bernie’s policies are far too idealistic and unattainable). I therefore believe that being a feminist and taking Hillary’s gender into account are not mutually exclusive. I see her as the most feminist candidate and as the person who can most aggressively attack structures of sexism in America.

      You also make great points about clothing. In the longer draft of this post, I talked about the backlash Hillary has gotten from wearing pantsuits. There’s some fascinating scholarship about how Hillary is viewed compared to how Sarah Palin is viewed (society sees one as manly and aggressive and the other as feminine and sexual), and it touches upon clothing, amount of cleavage shown, and media attention. Let me know if you’re interested in reading it.

      Thanks again for reading my post and for the great comment!

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