Imagine Bernie Sanders as a Woman

At the end of a chapter in my book about the 2016 election, I described a student’s reaction to our discussions of the double-binds and double-standards that Hillary Clinton had to face, almost on a daily basis.“It sounds like Hillary was damned no matter what she did,” the student remarked. “She was so competent and so experienced! So smart! What kind of women would Americans find acceptable for President?”

It was a good question. And the answer is still not clear.

For a time during the 2016 primary, Bernie Sanders supporters were fond of saying “I’d love a woman for President, just not this one. If Elizabeth Warren were running, she’d have my vote in a minute.” But when Elizabeth Warren was actually running for the Massachusetts senate, she had to deal with charges of being “harsh” and “unlikeable.” Other women were “turned off” by Warren’s “know-it-all style”, and she was charged, like Clinton, with “inauthenticity.” “I want her to sound like a human being,” said a democratic analyst for Boston radio station WBUR, “not read the script that makes her sound like some angry, hectoring school marm.”

And now Warren is actually running for president, facing the same kinds of complaints, and pundits are chewing over whether she’s going to have the Hillary Clinton “likeability” problem. Some are arguing that it has nothing to do with gender; they recall how voters were equally turned off by Al Gore and Paul Tsongas. But Gore and Tsongas were criticized for being “wooden” and “emotionless,” while a woman’s “likeability” seems to require more than just spontaneity and warmth. It requires a demonstrated obedience to the unspoken rules that, when followed, assure voters that her competence is tempered with vulnerability, that however smart or experienced or competent she may be, she is — in the end — a woman.

The fact is that the biggest obstacle any woman has faced and will continue to face in aspiring to the highest office in any country, at any time in history, is that she is not a man. I know — duh. But the reality is that we haven’t yet begun to comprehend, let alone address, everything that flows from that seemingly simple fact. French philosopher Simone deBeauvoir remains the expert on it. In every era, in every culture, she pointed out, Man is the norm, and Woman is defined in terms of her difference from that norm. She may be reviled, she may be revered, but she is always judged by standards that are “special” to her sex, while the fact that men have a sex, too, goes unnoticed.

So, while male politicians can relax with a pretty standard professional dress-code, rarely remarked on unless strikingly quirky, women have to calibrate their outfits carefully to avoid being both too schoolmarmish and too sexually provocative. As Pat Schroeder, who explored a presidential run in 1987, remarked, if a man wants to look tough and industrious, all he has to do is “take off his tie, loosen his collar, roll up his shirtsleeves.” But there’s “no similar uniform for a woman. We tend to either look like unmade beds or look like a model.” Bernie Sanders was not just permitted, but gloried in the scruffy, sleeves-rolled charm of the sixties male politico. Hillary, of course, was not allowed the same license to be bushy and unmanicured; she quickly learned, as First Lady of Arkansas, that her frizzy hair and oversized glasses had to go in favor of a “smoother” look. The requirement is deeper than the expectation that a First Lady be fashionable; Hillary’s transformation demonstrated that she cared about her looks — a key element of traditional femininity, particularly in an era when looking like a hippy was equated with radical politics.

Public women are not only expected to calibrate their outfits, but to regulate their emotional presence to be both warm, charming, and self-composed yet “tough enough to handle the job.”[1] And while male politicians are rarely criticized for being too “too serious,” gruff, or grumpy, even after Hillary lost the election, she was expected to concede “graciously,” and called a “sore loser” when she — justly — sitedComey’s interference. Sanders, on the other hand, looked like he was about to punch someone at the Democratic convention when Clinton officially got the nomination, and I never heard the word “ungracious” uttered by a single commentator.

In a panel discussion last week on the Joy Reid show, Jennifer Rubin came right out and called it: “Imagine if Bernie Sanders had been a woman.” The rumpled suits. The unkempt hair. The wagging finger. The bellowing. All were rarely remarked on except with indulgence or affection. But what icon would a Betty Sanders conjur? A disheveled, scolding grandma who didn’t “care enough” to put herself together? It was the perfect thought-experiment to confront the double-standards to which Hillary and other female politicians have been held. We accept it as “normal” when male politicians shout, interrupt, hog the stage, or aggressively interrogate, but when Hillary raised her voice it was described as “screeching” and both Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris were told to shut up when they claimed too much time on the Senate floor. In February 2017, Warren was famously rebuked by Mitch McConnell (“She was warned…nevertheless she persisted”) when, during confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions, she read a critical letter from Coretta Scott King. (Male senators later read the same letter without being cut off.) In July of that year, Richard Burr ordered Harris to be silent and lectured her about her lack of “courtesy” for not allowing poor Sessions to ramble on evasively as she questioned him during the Senate Intelligence Committee into Russian interference in the 2016 election. (No one, as I recall, took Trey Gowdy or any others to task when they hammered away at Clinton during the Benghazi hearings.)

The “Woman as Other” is especially pronounced when it comes to our norms, visual images, and expectations of the head of state. The female in charge is still so remarkable — even, apparently, in countries that have had women Queens for centuries — that women who aspire to or hold higher office tend to get glommed together by virtue of their sex. Theresa May has been described by Mary Ann Sieghart as “the new Hillary Clinton” — but also as “the British Angela Merkel” and “another Iron Lady,” referring to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Forget any ideological differences between Clinton, Thatcher, Merkel and May. They are all women leaders, “such rare creatures that they can only be understood through the prism of one another.”

It’s no wonder that Elizabeth I felt it crucial to convince her subjects that although she was a woman, she had the “heart and stomach of a King.” But Elizabeth also realized that there was danger lurking in presenting herself as too “masculine” (and thus seen as “unnatural” — a special problem for her, as she remained unmarried and childless) and took care to promote herself as a loving, maternal figure, too, with all English subjects as her children. Instinctively, she recognized that being the “other” in a masculinist world was not escapable, only negotiable. Step outside the boundaries of appropriately contained feminine behavior, and you are likely to be perceived as unstable, “shrill,” overly aggressive or overly emotional. But being too “masculine” (read: too self-contained, too coolly competent, too unabashedly competitive) is a problem, too. (Chuck Todd actually criticized Clinton for being “over-prepared” for her first debate against Trump.) Golda Meir was called “the only man in the cabinet”; Angela Merkel “the iron frau”; Hillary, of course, has had that continuing problem with being “unlikeable,” the polish and poise she has had to develop in order to be taken seriously viewed as a sign of insincerity and “inauthenticity,” and proof that she was an ambitious, opportunistic politician who would craft her public self as required.

It’s a double-bind — which means, as my student perceived, that it’s a balancing act that is virtually unsustainable. To command authority requires demonstrating that you’ve got cahones; but to win the affection of subjects/voters one can’t be seen as too self-contained or in control — qualities that translate as “cold” in a woman. So, when Hillary Clinton teared up in a New Hampshire coffee shop after losing the 2008 Idaho primary, reporters declared that “the icy control queen” had finally “proved that she is human.” (Obama has wiped away tears on several occasions; it’s never seen as proof of his humanity — which has never been questioned, even when he is being his most professorial.) When Clinton went on to win the New Hampshire primary, many commentators attributed the win to that show of vulnerability. “Clinton has found her groove,” said Richard Cohen of Real Clear Politics, while the wave that Obama had been riding finally “broke” on Hillary’s “warm tears.”

Surely, however, if Clinton had actually spilled over with tears rather than simply welled up, her competency for office — especially as commander-in-chief — would have been questioned. And if her standard mode in debates and public appearances was the “softness” she displayed during the last debate, it’s doubtful she would have been taken very seriously as a candidate. That moment has become legendary. Hillary, a highly accomplished debater, had been answering questions as adroitly as usual. Then Scott Spradling, a news anchor at the local TV station WMUR took it to a more personal level: “What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire, who see a resume and like it but are hesitating on the likability issue, where they seem to like Barack Obama more,” he asked. Hillary, surprising many, responded rather girlishly: “Well,” she replied with a deliberately exaggerated pout, “that hurts my feelings.” Then, with impeccable timing, she teased, “but I’ll try to go on.” She turned to Obama: “He’s very likeable, I agree with that. I don’t think I’m that bad.” It was a winning moment for Hillary, and a semi-disaster for Obama, whose reply — “You’re likeable enough, Hillary” — seemed cold and insensitive to many viewers.

It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, this business of projecting the right degree of feminine vulnerability, “softness” and “accessibility” while still appearing competent and strong. Some women have the knack — Nancy Pelosi, for example, seems to have mastered the art. Yet even Pelosi, now being hailed as she takes the speaker’s gavel for the second time, has had more than her share of sexist epithets — “bitch” and “ball buster” being among the most popular — hurled at her by those who felt it was just god-damn wrong for a woman to wield so much power, and so effectively. Being displaced as speaker for a number of years has helped temper those nasty reactions to her, too. We are more acepting of female ambition and power, it seems, after a bit of humbling.

Along these lines, Hillary Clinton’s “highs” in “popularity” are as instructive as her “lows.” They’ve followed a familiar pattern: the press loves her when she is down and/or graciously “serving” the nation; they feel inspired to pull her down a peg or two (or twenty) when she gets too full of herself or aims too high. As First Lady, she was deemed by conservative commentators as that most “unnatural”of creatures: an ambitious woman. She wanted an office in the West Wing! She tried to put through a plan for universal health care! She only had one child! She sneered (or so we were led to believe) at women who stayed home to bake cookies and serve tea. These crimes earned her epithets like “The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock”and “The Yuppie Wife From Hell”; a New York Post cartoon pictured Bill Clinton as a marionette, with a ferocious Hillary pulling the strings.

It may come as a surprise to those more familiar only with the “untrustworthy,” “corrupt” Hillary of the 2016 campaign that earlier attacks on her, besides those focused on her feminism and headbands, centered around what was seen as her ostentatious virtue and moral superiority. Rather than a tool of big money and establishment power, she was seen as overly zealous in her quest for moral justice and reform, and derided for “New Age” optimism. When she gave a speech in as First Lady in 1993, arguing for “a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring… a society that fills us up again and makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves,”columnists mocked her as an “aspiring philosopher queen.” A New York Times Magazine cover story by Michael Kelly called “Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Virtue” described her speech as “easy, moralistic preaching couched in the gauzy and gushy wrappings of New Age jargon.” Inside the magazine, opposite the sarcastic headline, “Saint Hillary,”an illustration depicts the first lady beneath a golden halo.

Clinton the cheated-on wife got more sympathy than “Lady MacBeth of Little Rock”or the “aspiring philosopher queen.”When the Clintons left the White House, Hillary had been battered and bruised enough to earn the right to run for Senator of New York State, an office in which her productive but low-key performance earned her praise. It was only when she — oops — again started “leaning in” again (Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s phrase for women pushing against the professional limits placed on them) and dared to try for the Presidency, that the “hellish housewife” (as Leon Wieseltier called her) was reincarnated, this time without the “housewife” part. Not surprisingly, the right-flank led the charge: Hillary was ”satan”(Don Imus), “Mommie Dearest,” “the debate dominatrix”and “Mistress Hillary “ (Maureen Dowd.)

But it wasn’t just right-wing journalists and pundits. Hillary, in seeking more power, stirred something up among her fellow Democrats, too. “Power-seeking men,” as one Harvard study found, “are seen as strong and competent. Power-seeking women are greeted by both sexes with ‘moral outrage.” Left-leaning politicos, perhaps determined (as they had been during the Clarence Thomas hearings) to show their solidarity with a black man, were among the worst. MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, an ardent Obama supporter, described Hillary as a creature from the bowels of hell: “witchy” and a “she-devil.”

For a woman, the opposite of “leaning in” is graciously “serving,” whether cookies and tea as First Lady or as a junior senator who underplayed her celebrity and deferred to those with seniority. Even Republicans seemed to like Hillary when she was doing that. When she left the senate, she was commended by politicians on both sides of the aisle for her compassionate service to New York during 9/11 and her ability to work with Republicans as well as Democrats. And as Secretary of State, she served President Obama (to whom, let’s not forget, she lost her first presidential run) so dutifully, was such an exemplary public servant and team player that she had a 69% approval rating — “remarkably high numbers,” Nate Silver noted, “in an era when many public officials are distrusted or disliked.”

Hillary had worked extremely hard to rebuild America’s public image abroad, with great success. By 2014, a year before Hillary announced her intention to run for President, a Times/CBS News poll found that 82% of Democrats favored Clinton over both Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, and a Quinnipiac poll reported that registered voters in Ohio (yes — Ohio) chose Clinton over the six likely Republican candidates: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich. “If the election were held tomorrow,”John McCain said, “Hillary Clinton would most likely be the President.” (The New Yorker, March 10, 2014)

But as her friend and former congresswoman Ellen Tauscher had warned her before she left State, that would all change once she actually entered the ring. “The moment you move back into politics,” Tauscher had said, “you go from 66 to 46 to 26 faster than a split second.” In April 2015 Hillary announced her candidacy, and within weeks, John McCain’s prediction was replaced, by the press, with an annoying “presumption of inevitability”; the pundits used language like “anointed,” as though she thought herself a queen, had the nerve to aspire to a throne. A little groveling, please — after all, aren’t you grateful for how far you’ve been allowed to ascend?

At the same time, her GOP colleagues began to alchemize everything good that she had accomplished while serving her country from gold into ashes. Her tenure as Secretary of State became “Benghazi”and then “the Email scandals.” Her years of experience trying to find common ground in a highly polarized government became evidence of her enmeshment in “establishment politics.” Her ability to moderate between progressive goals and the necessities of working within a consumer capitalist society (yes, like it or not, that is what we are) became “being in the pocket of Wall Street.” And every time she tried to explain — anything — she was branded as “lying,” “deflecting,” “covering up.”

It was relentless — and if you think this is an exaggeration, just take a look at the June 2016 report from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center which showed that even when “scandals” were not involved, 84% of Clinton’s coverage was negative compared to 43% of Trump’sand 17% ofSanders’s. The report notes: “Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end.” And that’s not even considering the effect of the Russian/GOP cyber-attack.

It’s no wonder that Hillary, as she describes it, has learned to “think before I speak” and “sometimes sound careful with my words. [It’s] not that I’m hiding something, it’s just that I’m careful with my words.” The irony is that this caution engenderedan abiding, low-level hostility toward her from the media. We saw this frequently during the election-cycle — in complaints about her lack of press conferences, the constant descriptions of her “secretive” and “calculating” responses to the press, and the snide side comments about her “carefully choreographed appearances” and “halting” answers. The construction of this cagey Hillary Clinton was so relentless, so embedded in virtually every story about her, that it made no difference whether you were watching Fox News or MSNBC — unlikeable, untrustworthy, unpopular Hillary was all you were going to get.

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With a congress now “brimming” with women — quite a few young and outspoken — it may seem as though we are past the double-standards and double-binds that stalked Hillary Clinton. I’ll believe it when I see it. Even after several articles and Joy Reid’s panel on the gendered nature of “unlikeability,” it’s possible to turn on the television at any moment and hear some male pundit complain, as Rick Tyler did a couple of days ago, that Elizabeth Warren is “hard to like.” At the other end of the femininity spectrum, the GOP is trying its damndest to make Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s playfulness into an indication that she is a flirtatious ditz. Obama did some sexy dance turns, too, but even the most skillful GOP spinmeister didn’t try to argue that his moves were proof that he didn’t take his job seriously.

It’s hopeful, of course, that women in office are now talking back to such double-standards, without cowering to charges of “playing the woman card.” I’m excited to see what changes may come. Yet I can’t help but be irritated by how little sense of history — even as recent history as the 2016 election — their indignation carries. Yes, there are obligatory genuflections to the “women on whose backs the current crop is standing.” But, um, what about Hillary Clinton? Is she not owed both gratitude for the ground she tilled and apology for how badly she was treated — particularly by mainstream media coverage? Nope, we’d rather “move on” and send that grandma out to sea. In the wake of #MeToo, Trump, and the 2018 wins, we’re talking a lot more about the fear of female power. But for some reason, neither the pundits or the politicians seem able or willing to apply any of the “new” (cough, cough) insights to the 2016 election. Instead, the same caricatures that dominated media coverage of Hillary are mindlessly re-circulated, and she’s being treated by the media and other Democrats like an expired box of cereal.

Something is very wrong, surely, when a panel discussion can deconstruct the gendered nature of the concept of “likeability” (as the discussion on AM Joy did) without noting the destructive role it played in the 2016 election. Worse, some panelists actually threw nasty shots at her. It wasn’t because Hillary gave some speeches at Goldman Sachs. And despite everyone’s desperate desire to leave 2016 behind, until we confront what really happened — and continues to happen — we haven’t earned the right to see ourselves as champions of women, no matter how many yearbook-style pictures of the new female congress we post.


[1] This double-standard — only one of the many which dogged Hillary throughout both the primary and the general — is one teachers face as well. I’ve seen it numerous times, reading student evaluations while I was serving on tenure and promotion committees: Males who hold to strict standards (of grading, comments on papers, etc.) are commended, while the female instructor who isn’t “understanding”or “supportive” enough is described as cold and rigid. But then, female instructors who adopt more student-centered methods, who encourage the sharing of personal experiences, who have their students write journals rather than take tests may be viewed as “touchy-feely” and unprofessional.

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Portions of this piece originally appeared in Susan Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact That Decided the 2016 Election.

Citations for quotations, statistics, and other references in this piece available on request from author (Bordo@uky.edu)