For those of us who’d rather not contemplate the prospect of Donald Trump as a war commander, Hillary Clinton (remember her?) is back in the news at just the right moment. She’s not likely to linger there for long, but something she said, while diagnosing her defeat, is surely worth 1,000 words.
On stage last Thursday at the Women in the World Summit, she told columnist Nicholas Kristof: “It is fair to say that certainly misogyny played a role. That just has to be admitted. Why and what the underlying reasons are, are things I’m trying to parse out myself.”
Those remarks got lots of weekend buzz on social media and triggered lively exchanges on Fox News and “Meet the Press.” And deservedly so. Clinton lost for lots of reasons (two days after the election, I heaped some of the blame on her), but she’s nevertheless correct that her gender was a contributing factor — perhaps a fatal one, given the razor-thin margin in key states, including Pennsylvania.
Nationwide, a whopping 63 percent of white men and 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. And Clinton is convinced that some of those folks thought this way: “‘I don’t agree with him, I’m not sure I really approve of him, but he looks like somebody who’s been president before.'”
She’s right. It’s nuts to pretend otherwise. Sexism is rarely acknowleged, but it is persistent, and future female presidential candidates need to heed it and find ways neutralize it.
Social scientists have identified what’s now called “ambivalent sexism” — something far subtler than hatred. Indeed, this prescient PBS story, posted during the ’16 campaign, warned that Clinton could be hurt by its symptoms:
An extensive body of research has shown that women who seek leadership positions often encounter resistance from both men and women if they violate gender norms by acting in stereotypically masculine ways, like being competitive, assertive and self-promotional. This is known among social psychologists as the ‘backlash’ effect, and examples abound. For instance, though there are more women in middle-management positions in the business world today than there were in previous generations, just 4.2 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are female. The backlash effect extends to politics, too…
Many Americans have been conditioned to assign men and women prescribed gender roles. And when Clinton goes off-script, which she did a long time ago, and acts like a politician — that is to say, no different than a man — science shows that [many Americans] are wired to judge her differently, and more negatively, than her male competition. That’s the double standard at work, and that’s the point. It is very real, and it has a profound effect on our view of men, women, and who gets to have the power …. In the end, a certain percentage of white men aren’t going to vote for Clinton in November, and if it’s a large enough number Clinton is going to lose. And some of those men will not vote for Clinton simply because she’s a woman, though they may not acknowledge that to pollsters or even themselves.
Well, 63 percent was certainly large enough.
David Brooks, the center-right columnist, concurred yesterday on “Meet the Press.” In his view, “gender politics clearly played a role in this election …. Donald Trump is a cliché of old-fashioned masculinity. And a lot of people long for that kind of masculinity, which is never coming back, but they long for it. And so to say that his hyper-macho stereotype was not part of why he got elected — I mean, it wasn’t his [policy] knowledge” that got him elected.
Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, said that Trump “had a certain executive bearing, and that helped.” Nevertheless, he said, “Hillary Clinton is just not good at politics. She’s not a good campaigner.” Because she’s not “a likeable woman.”
Bingo. Lowry identified the big hurdle for women, even though he didn’t see it. For a full explanation of that hurdle, let’s go to Jehmu Greene, a liberal commentator who spoke the other day on Fox News (props to Fox News for putting her on the air):
“We still live in a culture of misogyny, and we saw that in this past election, where a man who is ambitious and successful is seen as being powerful. A woman who is ambitious and successful is questioned about ‘likability.’ And that’s regardless of whether you’re seeking political leadership or corporate leadership. All women go through that … a higher standard and a double standard.”
That’s the gist of research conducted by the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Rutgers-based Center for American Women and Politics, which is expected to release a report later this month. Many voters are actually conscious of this double standard, according to the research, but still “actively participate in it.”
I’ll offer another observer. Twelve days ago at the Free Library of Philadelphia, I hosted an on-stage conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter, a foreign policy specialist and international lawyer who has written extensively about the hurdles that still bedevil professional women. At one point I asked her whether, or to what extent, misogyny played a role in the ’16 election. She replied:
“Misogyny means hatred of women, and I think that’s too strong. There are plenty of men and women who don’t hate women, but who are still deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a woman in power. What’s very telling was the number of people I know who said, ‘I’m absolutely ready for a woman president — just not this woman.’ Well, any woman in this audience who has seen a woman not get promoted, that is always the story [from male superiors]: ‘I love women — just not that one.’ This one or that one has ‘sharp elbows.’ That is subconscious bias. The people who do it — women as well as men — are not consciously biased against [powerful] women, they believe what they say, which is ‘Of course, I’m all for women.’ But they can’t quite get over the hurdle when presented with [a specific] woman.
“If Hillary Clinton had spoken like Bernie Sanders — he spoke in one [loud, bellowing] register — can you imagine if she had shrieked her way through the primaries? Time and again, you would see the double standard, where men got away with things that she was called on. She was not a perfect candidate, and she inflicted wounds to herself, I recognize that. But given the number of people who claimed they were ‘ready’ for a woman — no, I’m not convinced they were.”
Clinton, on stage last Thursday, offered this advice to young female political aspirants: “Toughen up your skin.” Actually, they’ll need to toughen up and be likeable, too. I do believe that someone some day will successfully walk that line. After all, even Hillary Clinton in 2016 got more votes than any white man in American history.