Chandler’s boss made a joke in a Friends episode referencing a possibility that many Americans have been waiting to witness for quite some time: Hillary Clinton as President of the United States, becoming the first woman to wield the title ‘leader of the free world.’ He said “I strongly believe that we should all support President Clinton — and her husband Bill.” It was based on the premise that Hillary was overstepping her role as First Lady, to the point of essentially doing her husband’s job. She was out of her place. Although the tasteless joke was made by a schmuck and Chandler only laughed to avoid any conflict, it did touch on how sexism can affect a powerful woman. Pundits have speculated over the multitude of reasons for the election outcome in the past few weeks.
Conservative commentators have been quick to argue that any effects of sexism were cancelled out by Hillary’s status as an elite. I argue, however, that Hillary’s affluence stood to not only help but hurt her. In this column, “traditional family values” loosely refers to the values of nuclear families that populated the yet-to-be defined time when America was Great. Trump was a refuge for people who take comfort in them, and the Trump campaign exploited the same underlying pitch in an attempt to show that Hillary wasn’t a true crusader for women to deter support among those who don’t.
Sarah Palin received mass appeal when she was first announced as McCain’s pick for vice president, and a large part of it came from her self-proclaimed identity as a “hockey mom” fiercely dedicated to her family. Though she was a woman vying for the vice presidency, many took comfort in the fact that she would use the same empowerment she derived from being a mother to her children when she would took up the responsibilities of the vice president.
“The only difference between a hockey mom and a pit-bull is lipstick” meant that she could lead effectively while still upholding traditional family values that were seen as in danger of erosion, especially with more women than ever prioritizing professional aspirations over maternity. This isn’t unique to Republican women, as Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) converted a “mom in tennis shoes” insult into a motto that would play a pivotal role in a series of elections that ultimately won her a seat in the Senate.
Politicians commonly cite their blue-collar, tight-knit family background to connect with the ‘everyday American.’ For men, the mere mention of such a history can be enough. For women, however, such a history must be a central aspect of her identity to accomplish the same. An affluent background for any politician is (usually) detrimental, but the extent of its damage can vary based on gender.
Even though Hillary Clinton did in fact have a homemaker for a mother and a small-business owner for a father, when she recounts this childhood it is dismissed when viewed against the decades of her life as a Clinton. Her status bolstered a depiction of her as a shrewd, deceptive character that followed her from her time as First Lady of Arkansas into her email investigation. Furthermore, even when traditional family values are harped upon, it doesn’t hurt male politicians who invoke them when the man is designated the breadwinner. Consequently, Hillary could not be the champion for everyday Americans in the way Trump portrayed himself as and eventually became, the ‘boy from Queens’ who also infamously received a million-dollar loan from his father.
This dynamic harmed Hillary when it came to voters who are comfortable with gender roles, but her opposition also used it to diminish her position as a women’s advocate. From her own admission, Hillary was an ambitious and driven young person long before her husband entered public life. She also said she wouldn’t want to just “bake cookies” when her critics viewed her professional and personal independence as harmful to her husband’s, fending off charges that keeping “Rodham” or having an office in the West Wing would hamper public confidence in Bill’s leadership. How can you instill doubt in people who view her fierce and storied record as a champion for women as a plus? By asserting that Hillary hungers more for power than she cares for the rights and safety of women.
Hillary was repeatedly attacked for enabling sexual assaults allegedly committed by Bill Clinton, and for deciding to stay with him after having known about his extramarital affair. Both were linked to a desire to secure more power for herself at the cost of being an empowering role model for women. Even James Comey’s last-minute alert to Hillary’s potential involvement with Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal played right into this narrative. If they were with her, then she was not with them.
For Hillary, her drive to eventually put not only a vocal feminist, but a gender equality activist in the Oval Office was the very thing used to question her dedication to that cause. It is one thing to not endorse traditional family values, but these allegations paint Hillary as someone who actively destroys them. Compare Hillary’s treatment to that of Trump, who has not only spouted blatant misogyny, but also has woman after woman recounting the sexual harassment and assault he committed, actions that were crudely supported by his own words.
Donald Trump was already perceived as a powerful and misogynistic man incapable of denouncing his slimy ways, traits that buffered against negative impacts from reported incidents of further misogyny. This is problematic. Everyone should be held to the same standard for their treatment of women, whether they are a man or a woman. Women are disproportionately given the brunt to bear for shirking their duties to uphold feminism, even when accusations of backing out are backed up by unsubstantiated claims. This disparity worked against Hillary Clinton, especially when a group of men themselves accused of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault of women played important roles in the election outcome: Anthony Weiner, Julian Assange and Donald Trump.
It is unreasonable to say that Hillary Clinton lost because she is a woman, but equally as unreasonable to suggest sexism played no role in her loss. Even with the seemingly antiquated view of sexism as a force that chastises women who seek to expand their reach outside the household, and terrific strides made by activists in the ongoing fight for gender equality, it is still important to note that this same underlying conviction still presents in prejudices that confront some of the most powerful women in the world today. The 2016 United States Presidential Election is a harrowing reminder that the glass ceiling is still indomitably intact; the very idea of an American female president remains a punchline for many.
Narayan Reddy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reddy Set Go appears alternating Mondays this semester.