Thought Catalog
February 10, 2016

A Feminist’s Guide to Critiquing Hillary Clinton

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What is the issue?
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istockphoto.com / wundervisuals

Fair warning: This blog is not going to be angry. It will not be written in all caps. There will be no vulgarity. And it probably won’t go viral. I don’t care.

What I do care about is the fact I’ve read over 70+ articles in the past two weeks alone discussing the 2016 election and what I see is a total lack of nuance and a lot of critiques that overgeneralize or underplay the very real role gender plays when people talk about Clinton and/or any other women who dare to step into positions that for so long have only been held by men.

What I do care about is how on my Facebook feed and elsewhere, I see well meaning folks called out as sexist jerks for simply offering legitimate critiques of Clinton and what a Clinton presidency might look like.

I like nuance. I like messy. I don’t like soundbites and simplicity. So, let’s play the nuance game. For folks who love Clinton, realize that not every critique poised against her is based in sexism. For those who love Sanders, realize that sexism is very alive in 2016, and that you can love your candidate AND embrace the reality that politicking while female is still an incredibly difficult thing to do. Imagine that. Both/and. For those who haven’t yet made up their minds, or don’t fall into either of these categories, this is for you, too.

So, here is my attempt to create a list of productive ways to critique Hillary Clinton without being a sexist jerk.

1).  Do not talk about her voice. Really. Just don’t. Earlier this week (and pretty much throughout Clinton’s existence), we’ve seen pundits and others criticize her shrillness, her voice, and her “masculine” speaking style. Soraya Chemaly argues, “Anger in a man doesn’t make the world wonder out loud if his hormones have taken over his brain and rendered him an incoherent idiot who can’t be trusted with Important Things. How many words for ‘angry’ men are there? Ones that have the powerful and controlling cultural resonance of yelling, and shouting,b-tch, nag? Or, yep, shrill.” Karlyn Kohrs Campbell wrote an incredibly thoughtful piece discussing how our culture has negatively responded to Clinton’s inability to fit within the parameters set in terms of how one should act and speak as a woman in the political sphere. She says Clinton “symbolizes the problems of public women writ large, the continuing demand that women who play public roles or function in the public sphere discursively enact their femininity, and that women who do not or who do so to only a limited degree, women whose training and personal history fit them for the roles of rhetor, lawyer, expert, and advocate, roles that are gender coded masculine, will arouse the intensely hostile responses that seem so baffling” (15).  Overall, what Campbell is arguing is that women in the political sphere, in order to be taken seriously, must enact just the right amount of femininity and masculinity, and that Clinton’s failure to be “appropriately feminine” has hindered her for decades.

She continues to thoughtfully lay out a “masculine” and “feminine” rhetorical style of speaking and discusses what that sounds like.” In rhetorical terms, performing or enacting femininity has meant adopting a personal or self-disclosing tone (signifying nurturance, intimacy, and domesticity) and assuming a feminine persona, e.g., mother, or an ungendered persona, e.g., mediator or prophet, while speaking. It has meant preferring anecdotal evidence (reflecting women’s experiential learning in contrast to men’s expertise), developing ideas inductively (so the audience thinks that it, not this presumptuous woman, drew the conclusions), and appropriating strategies associated with women—such as domestic metaphors, emotional appeals to motherhood, and the like—and avoiding such ‘macho’ strategies as tough language, confrontation or direct refutation, and any appearance of debating one’s opponents. Note, however, that feminine style does not preclude substantive depth and argumentative cogency” (5).

Presidents Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton use/used a “feminine” rhetorical style of speaking–something which men can do and not be criticized for.  Reagan was the great communicator. Both Clinton and Obama have been called some of the greatest orators in American history.

Hillary Clinton cannot “perform” femininity and her inability to play into this script Campbell argues reveals *our deficiencies*–not Clinton’s. Campbell states, “Our failure to appreciate the highly developed argumentative skills of an expert advocate, when the advocate is female, reveals our deficiencies, not hers. Legislation attendant on the second wave of feminism opened doors for able women who seek to exercise their skills in all areas of life, including the formation of public policy. If we reject all of those who lack the feminizing skills of Elizabeth Dole, we shall deprive ourselves of a vast array of talent” (15).

2).  Please don’t talk about her “likeability.”  As with the sound of her voice and her rhetorical speaking style, her “likeability” should have nothing to do with whether or not she would make a qualified president. Yes, I realize all candidates have to somewhat pass the likeability test, but for Clinton, because of the years long Hillary hating stemming from her time as first lady, this issue is in fact gendered, and to criticize her for not being likeable reeks of sexism.  Henry Louis Gates Jr. argues, “Hillary hating has become one of those national past times that unite the elite and the lumpen.” Gary Wills notes, “Hillary Hate is a large-scale psychic phenomenon. At the Republican convention there was a dismemberment doll on sale. For twenty dollars you could buy a rag-doll Hillary with arms and legs made to tear off and throw on the floor. .. . Talk shows are full of speculation about Hillary’s purported lesbianism and drug use. Fine conspiratorial reasoning sifts whether she was Vince Foster’s mistress or murderer or both. The Don Imus show plays a version of the song ‘The Lady is a Tramp’ with new lyrics about the way the lady ‘fornicates’ and ‘menstruates’ and ‘urinates,’ concluding, ‘That’s why the First Lady is a tramp.’”

As Nico Lang points out, “She was a working woman and full political partner with (gasp) feminist tendencies. Among would-be first ladies in the early 1990s, these were exotic qualities. Clinton has continued to occupy that same space for the better part of three decades now, a one-woman culture war who plays the political game the same way the men around her do. But unlike those men, Clinton is chided for being ‘disingenuous’ and a ‘political insider.’ Everyone else just gets to do their job. There are real reasons to have reservations about a Clinton presidency — including her oft-cited ties to Wall Street and her hawkish foreign policy — but how often are they the central force of the criticism lodged against her campaign? In an August poll, Quinnipac found that while political respondents felt that Hillary Clinton was ‘strong’ and a candidate with ‘experience,’ the words they most associated with her are ‘liar,’ ‘dishonest,’ and ‘untrustworthy.’ These designations appear to be motivated by her Emailgate scandal and the ongoing questions about Benghazi — but none of the myriad investigations into either have turned up anything close to a smoking gun.”

Rebecca Traister also notes, “Recall the days following the 2008 Iowa caucus, when the media took advantage of Clinton’s defeat to let loose with their resentment and animosity toward her. That was when conservative Marc Rudov told Fox News that Clinton lost because ‘When Barack Obama speaks, men hear ‘Take off for the future!’ When Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear ‘Take out the garbage!’ It was in the days after Iowa that Clinton infamously got asked about how voters believed her to be ‘the most experienced and the most electable’ candidate but ‘are hesitating on the likability issue.’ In late January, columnist Mike Barnicle told a laughing all-male panel on Morning Joe that Clinton’s challenge was that she looks ‘like everyone’s first wife standing outside of probate court.’” In Diana B. Carlin and Kelly L. Winfrey’s analysis of the various ways Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were portrayed during the 2008 campaign, they note, “Women who exhibited too many masculine traits are often ridiculed and lose trust because they are going against type or play into male political stereotypes that voters are rejecting” (328).

More recently, Sady Doyle argues that, “This plays out on the level of personal expression, too: Women are supposedly over-emotional, whereas men make stern, logical, intelligent judgments. So, if Hillary raises her voice, gets angry, cries, or (apparently) even makes a sarcastic joke at a man’s expense, she will be seen as bitchy, crazy, cruel and dangerous. (Remember the ‘NO WONDER BILL’S AFRAID‘ headlines after she raised her voice at a Benghazi hearing; remember the mass freak-out over her ‘emotional meltdown‘ when someone thought she might be crying during a concession speech.) She absolutely cannot express negative emotion in public. But people have emotions, and women are supposed to have more of them than men, so if Hillary avoids them – if she speaks strictly in calm, logical, detached terms, to avoid being seen as crazy –  we find her ‘cold,’ call her ‘robotic’ and ‘calculating,’ and wonder why she doesn’t express her ‘feminine side.’ Again, she’s going to be faulted for feminine weakness or lack of femininity, and both are damaging.  Okay, so she can never be sad, angry, or impatient. That’s not a ban on all emotion, right? You’d think the one clear path to avoiding the ‘bitchy’ or ‘cold’ descriptors would be to put on a happy face, and admit to emotions only when they are positive. You’d think that, and you’d be wrong: It turns out, people hate it when Hillary Clinton smiles or laughs in public. Hillary Clinton’s laugh gets played in attack ads; it has routinely been called ‘a cackle‘ (like a witch, right? Because she’s old, and female, like a witch); frozen stills of Hillary laughing are routinely used to make her look ‘crazy‘ in conservative media. She can’t be sad or angry, but she also can’t be happy or amused, and she also can’t refrain from expressing any of those emotions. There is literally no way out of this one. Anything she does is wrong.”  Given these constraints, Doyle argues it is impossible for Clinton to be likeable.

Look at how she’s tried to address this issue.  Dancing like a fool, talking about fashion, laughing more.  What has it gotten her?  Nothing but backlash.

Dave Holmes writes in Esquire, “You’re not fun.  Stop trying to pretend you’re fun.”  The Onion writes an entirefaux op-ed from Clinton entitled “I am Fun” painting her attempt at being “fun” as insincere and manufactured.

In the eyes of the American public, Hillary Clinton will never be fun. Or likeable. Or someone you’d want to have a beer with. And it shouldn’t matter.  Period. So quit it with the likeability stuff, already. It’s stupid and petty. I don’t care if my president knows how to dance or even knows how to dress well. And you shouldn’t, either.

3).  Do criticize her on substantive issues. As Kevin Young & Diana C. Sierra Becerra argue, Clinton is the embodiment of corporate feminism. In their piece, they cite many areas where Clinton could have been and could still be a better advocate for women’s rights.  It’s a fair critique but one that falls under the radar when we’re so concerned with her voice, appearance, and dance skills.

4).  Know your history, do some research, and when criticizing, be fair. One of the claims I often hear as to why some don’t trust Clinton, or why some feel she’s untrustworthy is because she sat on the board of Walmart. Ok. But let’s dig a little deeper. Ann Klefstad notes, “Not to take anything away from Bernie and Jane, but think what an advantage this is: to build a career in a location of your choosing, with the strong support of a highly qualified and intelligent person who is unconditionally loyal to you. This was also Bill Clinton’s situation — after Yale, finding Hillary, heading home to Arkansas, and building a brilliant career in politics.  But hey — what about Hillary? After getting a law degree from Yale (an all-male institution a few years previously) she meets Bill. She dumps her career as a congressional aide to move to Arkansas with Bill. I can imagine her dilemma. This was the 1970s. If she wanted to be with Bill, she would be riding on the ship he was captain of. There were consequences to that. She would be a partner in creating a political career that would accomplish many of the goals she wanted to accomplish. Bill very much admired her superb intellect and political skills as well. So they embarked.  They’re in Arkansas. Vermont politics have a pretty clean record. Arkansas? Not so much. You do make your own choices, but the context you’re in, well, it matters. The Arkansas economy was in the toilet. The only bright star was the Walton family and Walmart, which was on track to become the biggest retailer in the world. They provided (in Arkansas) an expanding number of well-paid jobs. Bill was governor. Should Hillary have dumped his political career for a chance to spit in Sam Walton’s eye? Well, that wasn’t going to happen. She sat on the Walmart board and did what she could to both ensure the prosperity of the state of which her husband was governor and to do the right thing. She has almost always chosen the path (sometimes not the one you’d pick — ) that would enable her to accomplish some good actions, rather than the pure path that tends to lead to inaction, or to exile from the power than enables you to make change.”

Still don’t like the fact she sat on the board? Fine. Don’t like her stances on foreign policy? Totally ok. But understand the choices Clinton made in the context in which she lived–not in a vacuum. This goes for all of her political choices. Never assume anything about any candidate without doing a little research first. It’s amazing how much you can find out on this magical thing called the interwebs.

5).  Don’t assume critiques against Clinton are automatically rooted in sexism, and when calling out someone for critiquing Clinton, don’t assume they, are in fact, sexist either.  Take the #BernieBro label, for example. According to Glenn Greenwald, “Have pro-Clinton journalists and pundits been subjected to some vile, abusive, and misogynistic rhetoric from random, anonymous internet supporters of Sanders who are angry over their Clinton support? Of course they have. Does that reflect in any way on the Sanders campaign or which candidate should win the Democratic primary? Of course it does not. The reason pro-Clinton journalists are targeted with vile abuse online has nothing specifically to do with the Sanders campaign or its supporters. It has everything to do with the internet. There are literally no polarizing views one can advocate online — including criticizing Democratic Party leaders such as Clinton or Barack Obama — that will not subject one to a torrent of intense anger and vile abuse. It’s not remotely unique to supporting Hillary Clinton: Ask Megyn Kelly about that, or the Sanders-supporting Susan Sarandon and Cornel West, or anyone with a Twitter account or blog. I’ve seen online TV and film critics get hauled before vicious internet mobs for expressing unpopular views about a TV program or a movie.” Amanda Hess pushes further arguing “as soon as the Bernie Bro materialized, the conversation around it deteriorated. As the meme gained momentum, some popularizers stopped bothering to marshal any kind of evidence that Sanders supporters were sexist . . . . This is a familiar online phenomenon. Just as mansplaining ‘morphed from a useful descriptor of a real problem in contemporary gender dynamics to an increasingly vague catchall expression,’ asSalon’s Benjamin Hart put it in 2014, the Bernie Bro argument has been stretched beyond recognition by both its champions and its critics. What began as a necessary critique of leftist sexism has been replaced by a pair of straw men waving their arms in the wind.”

If the label applies, absolutely use it. Call out sexism and misogyny-especially if it’s coming from someone who claims to be progressive. However, I worry the label is being thrown around loosely and being applied to many well meaning, non-sexist male critics of Clinton. And that only silences debate. I don’t want anyone to feel as though they cannot legitimately critique Clinton for fear of being called sexist, a BernieBro, or other names.

Overall, as with most of my writing, this piece was for me. Every time I read an article about Clinton or Sanders or sexism or the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party I find myself wishing for more nuance, less click-bait, and sound and civil discourse. I’m tired of seeing the same soundbites repeated on my Facebook wall, seeing good friends of mine unfriend each other or worse because they’re on Team Sanders or Team Clinton and can’t find common ground to have a legitimate debate about what this election is really about.  In the words of my good friend Greg Wright, “If you can imagine a better opportunity to demand the world we want, I’d like to hear when you think it will come. When will better circumstances reveal themselves again? What political climate are you relying on to thrust the most unlikely candidate into the realm of possible? You want to know what will make this all the more likely to happen again? Demanding that it happen now.”

We are at a historic moment in American history, not unlike the 2nd wave feminist movement. Gloria Steinem once said of Betty Friedan “I believe that she was looking to join society as it existed, and the slightly younger parts of the movement were trying to transform society. And those were kind of two different goals.” Like Friedan, I would argue that Clinton wants to work within the structure we have, while Sanders wants to transform society. He wants a revolution. In the words of Robert Reich, “I’ve known Hillary Clinton since she was 19 years old, and have nothing but respect for her. In my view, she’s the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have. But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change.”

Sexism is real, and I love the fact that we are even talking about the ugly face of sexism in politics. However, we must be able to criticize a female candidate without resorting to sexist tactics, or be called sexist for critiquing her in the first place.

Overall, as many have pointed out, both Sanders and Clinton would be undeniably better as our next commander in chief than anyone currently running in the Republican arena.  So I would caution democrats to get too entrenched within their teams that they refuse to see the bigger picture of the need to elect a Democrat in this next election. There are ways to disagree with one another that don’t need to devolve into name calling or soundbite repeating. On Facebook and elsewhere, engage with those on either side in mindful and productive ways. This is an incredibly important election for so many reasons, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have thoughtful debates. So keep reading. Keep posting. Keep fighting for your team. Just don’t embrace the ugly. There’s enough of that out there already. TC mark

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