WITH A WHIMPER
Feminist equality and the privilege of being treated shabbily
Every story about a genie and a magic lamp has the same moral: be careful what you wish for, because it may not turn out to be as great as you’d hoped. Watching Hillary Clinton struggle and strain to fake-smile her way to the finish line of a presidential campaign that she clearly thinks is beneath her — besieged and harangued by an endless string of accusations, insults, and scandals — one can’t help but imagine that this is not quite the ultimate triumph of feminism dreamed of by intrepid young suffragettes a century ago.
Throughout her campaign, Hillary Clinton’s tried and true supporters (a much smaller group than you would expect for a lead-pipe cinch presidential candidate, but that’s a different story) have been spilling gallons of ink pushing the notion that Hillary is treated differently than her male counterparts because she’s a woman. The truth, however, is just the opposite: Hillary Clinton is treated exactly like a male politician. The problem, it turns out, is that being treated like a male politician isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
IT’S A MAN’S WORLD
The argument that Hillary is treated differently because she’s a woman takes a variety of forms, but always hits a few familiar notes: despite her experience, Secretary Clinton has to be twice as smart/clever/hard-working to get half as far as her male counterparts; she’s subjected to scrutiny on things like appearance and attire that the men avoid; and she has to do it all backwards and in high heels (or, in her case, pantsuits). Most insidiously, the argument goes, Clinton has to be far more careful and measured in what she says and does because her “tone” is judged by a different standard.
Even if she successfully navigates this gender-biased labyrinth, her proxies argue, her reward is that voters perceive her, at best, as competent and hardworking, but never as warm, engaging or comforting.
The argument has been articulated by scholars and pundits, professional commentators and amateur loudmouths, and at times even by Mrs. Clinton herself. Princeton professor Susan Fiske tackled the perceived issue in a series of psychology experiments on the perceptions of women leaders concluding that women who present traditionally feminine traits (stay-at-home moms, for example) are typically viewed as warm, but not competent and are treated dismissively — a sort of soft, gentlemanly sexism — while women considered less traditionally feminine (such as lesbians, athletes, or feminist activists) are perceived to be highly competent in their field but are not thought of as warm and comforting. Unlike men, women are forced into an either/or situation: be perceived as strong and capable or comforting and warm, but never both.
The less academic version of this discussion can be found in any number of op-eds, blog posts and dinner table conversations: if a man is aggressive, strong and opinionated he is heralded as a “driven go-getter”. If a woman displays the same traits, she’s a “cold-hearted bitch”.
It’s a pithy argument, but it’s based on a false premise.
DIFFERENT BUT SAME
It’s possible that the strong, opinionated and aggressive man may be seen as a driven go-getter by some (including, probably, the strong, opinionated and aggressive woman) but the more commonly-used term for such a man is: “asshole”. It’s true that, in certain circles, Donald Trump is heralded for his business successes that have been earned through cut-throat, hard-nosed tactics, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks of him as anything other than a jerk.
The truth is that men and women who openly display aggressive and power-hungry traits are treated very similarly to one another — they may be respected for their abilities, but they are not going to be liked very much. Most often, they are seen for what they are which is highly competent and qualified, but not particularly pleasant, friendly or warm.
In general the people that fall into this category are not treated very well by the rest of us, partly because they are seen as thick-skinned and able to handle rough treatment and partly because people see no need to go out of their way to extend unrequited kindness to someone they don’t like very much.
Enter Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Based on her 30 years in the public sector holding a variety of government and government-adjacent positions, it’s difficult to credibly argue that she is not a competent, qualified and well-seasoned politician. But based on the same 30 years of public appearances, private anecdotes and reputation-building episodes, it is equally difficult to craft an argument that she is a genuinely likable person.
Hillary Clinton has a well-earned reputation as someone who bends the truth, skirts the rules, holds underlings in contempt, treats adversaries with malice and believes that half of the electorate (at least) is worthy of only her derision and condescension.
As a result of this well-earned reputation, she is treated in a manner that befits her thoroughly vetted and well documented persona as a competent but challenging, qualified but difficult, accomplished but unrelenting battle-ax of a politician. Which is exactly how she would be treated if she were a man.
t.s. elliot was right
It is one of the fascinating curiosities of this year’s election that the only thing both sides can agree on is that the dyspepsia created by their own candidate is only outweighed by the disgust they harbor for the other one. And gender has nothing to do with either.
Since Susan B. Anthony first started stumping for equal rights, the stated goal of feminism has been the opportunity to be treated just like the men. As we stand on the precipice of feminism’s ultimate triumph — the election of the first female U.S. president — the conundrum faced by the feminist community is the belated discovery that the men, particularly the male politicians, are treated pretty shabbily. And in most cases, the shabby treatment has been well-earned by years of petulant, self-centered political gamesmanship and general douche-baggery.
And so we arrive at the end of feminism: a movement that culminates not with the triumphant bang of a shattered glass ceiling, but with the whimpering realization that what they’ve been fighting for all along is the right to be treated like an asshole.