Except for her gender, Hillary Clinton is a highly conventional presidential candidate. She’s been in public life for decades. Her rhetoric is carefully calibrated. She tailors her views to reflect the mainstream within her party.
The reaction to her candidacy, however, has been unconventional. The percentage of Americans who hold a “strongly unfavorable” view of her substantially exceeds the percentage for any other Democratic nominee since 1980, when pollsters began asking the question. Antipathy to her among white men is even more unprecedented. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 52 percent of white men hold a “very unfavorable” view of Clinton. That’s a whopping 20 points higher than the percentage who viewed Barack Obama very unfavorably in 2012, 32 points higher than the percentage who viewed Obama very unfavorably in 2008, and 28 points higher than the percentage who viewed John Kerry very unfavorably in 2004.
At the Republican National Convention, this fervent hostility was hard to miss. Inside the hall, delegates repeatedly broke into chants of “Lock her up.” Outside the hall, vendors sold campaign paraphernalia. As I walked around, I recorded the merchandise on display. Here’s a sampling:
Black pin reading Don’t be a pussy. vote for Trump in 2016. Black-and-red pin reading trump 2016: finally someone with balls. White T-shirt reading trump that bitch. White T‑shirt reading hillary sucks but not like monica. Red pin reading life’s a bitch: don’t vote for one. White pin depicting a boy urinating on the word Hillary. Black T-shirt depicting Trump as a biker and Clinton falling off the motorcycle’s back alongside the words if you can read this, the bitch fell off. Black T-shirt depicting Trump as a boxer having just knocked Clinton to the floor of the ring, where she lies faceup in a clingy tank top. White pin advertising kfc hillary special. 2 fat thighs. 2 small breasts … left wing.
Standard commentary about Clinton’s candidacy—which focuses on her email server, the Benghazi attack, her oratorical deficiencies, her struggles with “authenticity”—doesn’t explain the intensity of this opposition. But the academic literature about how men respond to women who assume traditionally male roles does. And it is highly disturbing.
Over the past few years, political scientists have suggested that, counterintuitively, Barack Obama’s election may have led to greater acceptance by whites of racist rhetoric. Something similar is now happening with gender. Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is sparking the kind of sexist backlash that decades of research would predict. If she becomes president, that backlash could convulse American politics for years to come.
To understand this reaction, start with what social psychologists call “precarious manhood” theory. The theory posits that while womanhood is typically viewed as natural and permanent, manhood must be “earned and maintained.” Because it is won, it can also be lost. Scholars at the University of South Florida and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reported that when asked how someone might lose his manhood, college students rattled off social failures like “losing a job.” When asked how someone might lose her womanhood, by contrast, they mostly came up with physical examples like “a sex-change operation” or “having a hysterectomy.”
Among the emasculations men most fear is subordination to women. (Some women who prize traditional gender roles find male subordination threatening too.) This fear isn’t wholly irrational. A 2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that men who have female supervisors earn less, and enjoy less prestige, than men whose bosses are male.
Given the anxieties that powerful women provoke, it’s not surprising that both men and women judge them more harshly than they judge powerful men. A 2010 study by Victoria L. Brescoll and Tyler G. Okimoto found that people’s views of a fictional male state senator did not change when they were told he was ambitious. When told that a fictional female state senator was ambitious, however, men and women alike “experienced feelings of moral outrage,” such as contempt, anger, and disgust.
But while both men and women are often critical of powerful women, men are more likely to react aggressively. A study published last year by researchers at Northwestern, Washington State, and Bocconi University, in Italy, reported that men negotiating with a female hiring manager demanded more money than those negotiating with a male one. Another recent study, this one by University of South Florida researchers, showed that after men had their gender identity threatened, they placed riskier bets. Feeling subordinate to women may also lead men to act recklessly in their private lives. According to the University of Connecticut’s Christin Munsch, men who are economically dependent on their wives are more likely than others to be unfaithful.
It gets worse. In a study of several hundred people, Jennifer Berdahl of the University of British Columbia found that women who “deviated from traditional gender roles—by occupying a ‘man’s’ job or having a ‘masculine’ personality” were disproportionately targeted for sexual harassment.
But sexual harassment isn’t more likely only when women violate traditional gender roles. It’s also more likely when men consider those roles sacrosanct. In another study, Italian researchers arranged for male students to collaborate online with a fictitious man and one of two fictitious women. One of the women said she wanted to become a bank manager “even though it takes so much time away from family” and that she had joined “a union that defends women’s rights.” The second woman said she wanted to be a teacher, which she considered “the ideal job for a woman because it allows you to have sufficient time for family and children.” Having told the subjects that they were participating in a test of visual memory, the researchers gave them an assortment of images to exchange, some of which were pornographic. In each group, the fictitious male interlocutor proceeded to send pornographic images to the fictitous female; the researchers studied which of the male students would do the same, and to which of the women. They reported that the feminist interlocutor received the most pornography, and that male students who endorsed traditional gender roles were most likely to send it.
Other studies have reached similar conclusions. Two analyses of American murder statistics, for instance, suggest that in cities in the South, where men tend to hold traditional attitudes about gender, greater economic equality between men and women correlates with higher rates of male-on-female murder. The same correlation was not found in areas with less traditional attitudes.
Why is this relevant to Hillary Clinton? It’s relevant because the Americans who dislike her most are those who most fear emasculation. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Americans who “completely agree” that society is becoming “too soft and feminine” were more than four times as likely to have a “very unfavorable” view of Clinton as those who “completely disagree.” And the presidential-primary candidate whose supporters were most likely to believe that America is becoming feminized—more likely by double digits than supporters of Ted Cruz—was Donald Trump.
The gender backlash against Clinton’s candidacy may not defeat her. But neither is it likely to subside if she wins. Jennifer Lawless, the director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, suggested to me that Clinton has generally grown more popular when she stops seeking an office and begins occupying it. This accords with the research showing public hostility toward overt displays of female ambition. On the other hand, the pollster Anna Greenberg notes that Clinton has generally been most popular when conforming to traditional gender roles (working on women’s issues as first lady, sticking by her husband during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, loyally serving Barack Obama as secretary of state) and least popular when violating them (heading the health-care task force, serving in the Senate, running for president). Being the first female president, needless to say, violates traditional gender roles.
Another troubling omen comes from Australia and Brazil, where, in recent years, pioneering female leaders have suffered a brutal backlash. To be sure, some women leaders—Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Indira Gandhi—have thrived despite sexist opposition. Still, research suggests that women leaders are less likely than their male counterparts to be accepted as legitimate, a problem that plagued both Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who was ousted in 2013 after only three years, and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached earlier this year for corruption even though her male predecessors and some of her key male tormentors had likely done worse.
Because women in positions of power are seen as less legitimate than men in comparable positions, a study led by Yale’s Andrea Vial warns, their mind-set can come to resemble that of “illegitimate authorities.” A “self-reinforcing cycle” develops: In the face of disrespect, a woman’s leadership style can become overly tentative or aggressive. People in turn attack her, and she responds with more self-defeating defensiveness. In their 2007 biography of Clinton, the former New York Times reporters Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. write:
Some of Hillary’s biggest mistakes began as rather inconsequential errors in judgment and exaggerations. When they were seized on by her critics, Hillary followed—and continues to follow—the same pattern: She dug in because she feared that admitting a mistake would arm her enemies.
Growing paranoid is easy when, because of your gender, people really are out to get you.
It would be comforting to believe that, whatever tribulations Clinton may endure personally, her presidency will still reduce sexism in society at large. Sadly, reactions to Obama suggest the picture is not so simple. In 2009, Stanford psychologists reported that having supported Obama actually made respondents more likely to choose a white job applicant over a black one. A 2011 paper by the University of Michigan’s Nicholas Valentino and Ted Brader found that Obama’s election persuaded some whites that racism had declined, which made them more critical of affirmative action. Thus, the election of a black president “had the ironic effect of boosting estimates of racial resentment.” In a new, unpublished study with Fabian Neuner and Matthew Vandenbroek, Valentino further posits that the Obama presidency may have given some whites “the perceived moral license to express more critical attitudes about minorities.”
Even without Clinton, resentment against female empowerment would be a potent force. In 2015, more Republicans told the Public Religion Research Institute that “there is a lot of discrimination” against white men than said “there is a lot of discrimination” against women. This spring, 42 percent of Americans said they believed the United States has become “too soft and feminine.” Imagine how these already unnerved Americans will react once there’s a female president. Forty-two percent isn’t enough to win the presidency. But it’s enough to create a lot of political and cultural turmoil. What I saw on the streets of Cleveland, I fear, may be just the beginning.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.