Get ready for the era of The Bitch.
If Hillary Clinton wins the White House in November, it will be a historic moment, the smashing of the preeminent glass ceiling in American public life. A mere 240 years after this nation’s founding, a woman will occupy its top office. America’s daughters will at last have living, breathing, pantsuit-wearing proof that they too can grow up to be president.
A Clinton victory also promises to usher in four-to-eight years of the kind of down-and-dirty public misogyny you might expect from a stag party at Roger Ailes’s house.
You know it’s coming. As hyperpartisanship, grievance politics, and garden-variety rage shift from America’s first black commander-in-chief onto its first female one, so too will the focus of political bigotry. Some of it will be driven by genuine gender grievance or discomfort among some at being led by a woman. But in plenty of other cases, slamming Hillary as a bitch, a c**t (Thanks, Scott Baio!), or a menopausal nut-job (an enduringly popular theme on Twitter) will simply be an easy-peasy shortcut for dismissing her and delegitimizing her presidency.
Either way, it’ll be best to brace for some in-your-face sexist drivel in the coming years. Despite progress in the business world, women as top executives still prompt an extra shot of public scrutiny. (Just ask Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg or Carly Fiorina.) And just as Barack Obama’s election did not herald a shiny, new post-racial America, Clinton’s would not deliver one of gender equality and enlightenment. So goes progress: Two steps forward, one step back(lash). As the culture changes, people resent that change and start freaking out, others look to exploit their fear, and things can turn really, really nasty on their way to getting better.
Raw political sexism is already strutting its stuff. At Donald Trump’s coming-out party in Cleveland, vendors stood outside the Quicken Loans Arena hawking campaign buttons with whimsical messages, such as “Life’s a Bitch—don’t vote for one” and “KFC Hillary Special: Two fat thighs, two small breasts… left wing.” One popular T-shirt featured a grinning Trump piloting a Harley, grinning as Hillary tumbled off the bike so that you could read the back of Trump’s shirt: “IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THE BITCH FELL OFF.”
The home-crafted humor was equally tasteful, like the guy in a Hillary mask brandishing a large “Trump vs. Tramp” sign or (my personal favorite) the conventioneer who put together an elaborate “Game of Thrones”-themed ensemble incorporating a life-sized, inflatable Hillary doll—naked, of course.
Social media is awash in references to Clinton as a bitch, among less-flattering terms. “Trump that Bitch!” T-shirts are this season’s must-have couture at Trump rallies. And how about the tween boy yelling, “Take the bitch down!” at a recent Trump event in Virginia? Pure class.
It would be nice to think that this is all merely a heat-of-the-campaign thing—that if Hillary wins in November, the baser attacks will fade, and she will be treated with a smidge more respect. Fat chance. (Just ask Obama how that panned out for him.) “It will probably become even more overt the more power she attains because the more threatening she is,” predicted Farida Jalalzai, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University who focuses on gender. “People will have no problem vilifying her and saying the most misogynistic things imaginable.”
Just as Obama’s presidency helped bring unresolved issues about race into the mainstream political discussion, a Hillary presidency would likely do the same for issues like equal pay and child care. And while such discussions clearly need to be had, they pretty quickly can get heated. “Clinton will be walking a fine line,” said Leonie Huddy, a professor of political science at Stony Brook University. She will be a historic figure who brings a different perspective to the job. “But she is also going to be evaluated through the lens of, Is she just there for women? Maybe she will do something bad to men. There is a latent fear among men that their position in American society will decline further. So while there are a lot of guys on board for equalizing gender power, there are also quite a few who aren’t.”
It does not help that Trump has been ginning up anti-woman sentiment, said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “He has really motivated a lot of his supporters to be concerned and sort of feed on this gender resentment—the idea that women are getting too far, that Hillary is getting too far and is not really qualified, and that the only reason she has been successful is because she is a woman,” said Lawless.
Not that the bulk of the misogyny necessarily will have much to do with gender anxiety. Often, gender (like race) simply becomes a convenient tool to delegitimize a politician, said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It’s an easier attack than actually getting into substance.”
“The broader problem is that it is just a lazy way, an easy way” to dismiss one’s political adversary, asserted Julia Gillard, who got up close and personal with this phenomenon during her time as the first woman prime minister of Australia.
As head of the Australian Labor Party, Gillard served as prime minister from 2010 to 2013. Her tenure was turbulent and notable for what Gillard termed in her exit speech the “gender wars.” What surprised the former PM most about the experience: that the sexist attacks grew worse as her time in office progressed. “I expected the maximum reaction to my being the first woman prime minister to come in the first few months,” she told me. “What I found living through the reality was that the sort of gendered stuff actually grew over time” as she tackled tough policy decisions. (Gillard too was derided as a “menopausal monster.”)
Gillard recalled a particularly galling episode stemming from her 2011 announcement of a controversial carbon tax and trading scheme. Thousands of protesters showed up outside Parliament House toting signs with charming messages like “Ditch the Witch” and “JuLIAR—Bob Browns [sic] Bitch.” (Brown was the leader of the Green Party.) Rather than denouncing or ignoring the slurs, the head of the opposition party, Tony Abbott, gamely used the signs as a backdrop for delivering an anti-tax address. (Later, on the floor of parliament, Gillard delivered a takedown of Abbott’s behavior that became known as “the misogyny speech” and turned her into a global celebrity.)
Gillard detected subtler differences in treatment as well. For instance, she recalled, the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation did a comedy about her prime ministership. “They chose bizarrely, in my view, to finance a comedy where an impersonator played me,” said Gillard, noting that this was something not done for any other prime minister before or since.
It is, in fact, the subtler, “more insidious gender negativity,” that worries Stony Brook’s Huddy. “There will be concern about outright gender discrimination, but we can call people on that. Then it moves into more subtle realms,” she said. “There are plenty of gender stereotypes still available to say, ‘Maybe a woman isn’t up to this.’” (You know the routine: She’s not a strong leader. Or, She’s too abrasive and aggressive.) These sorts of messages can erode “mainstream” opinion, even those inclined to support gender equality, said Huddy.
“People can play into stereotypes very much associated with gender without saying, ‘Oh, she must be having her period,’” agreed Rutgers’s Dittmar. They raise vague issues about a woman leader’s strength or likability or even age and health, she said, “to tap into those persistent gender stereotypes and norms and raise doubts in the broader public.”
To avoid further pressurizing the situation—and setting Hillary up for massive failure—Clinton supporters (especially women) should try to control their expectations in terms of what the first woman president can accomplish. “You can have a woman in the highest office in the land, but that office is still a highly masculinized office,” said Dittmar, noting that Americans have typically looked for presidents who are “heroic, singular leaders” and somewhat “paternal.” Thus one challenge for Clinton will be to strike a balance between living up to the existing cultural norms of the institution even as she redefines it.
“Institutions hold on to status quo,” said Dittmar. And changing them can be a heavy lift. “It’s going to take work. Just as it took work for us finally to take seriously a woman candidate,” said Dittmar. “Women have been running for president for close to 150 years. And it’s taken all of those women to sort of chip away at expectations that the presidency is only a male bastion of power.”
People should also take care to avoid (even subconsciously) seeing Hillary’s inevitable stumbles and failures through the prism of gender. “The expectations placed on her shoulders in regards to gender are huge,” said Oklahoma State’s Jalalzai. Because of the polarized nature of U.S. politics, she said, “It’s hard for any president to get anything done.” But because Clinton would be the first woman to hold the post, people might see her performance as somehow tied to being a woman. “We don’t do that for men. We don’t ever say George W. Bush was a bad president because he was a guy,” said Jalalzai. “We don’t question men as political leaders because of their maleness.” But women are still to some degree “outsiders” in this role, noted Jalalzai. “Even if Hillary Clinton wins the ultimate prize, she is going to be viewed through that lens as a first and a novelty.” And if her presidency turns out to be unsuccessful? “The parties are not going to nominate another women [for a while],” said Jalalzai.
Worse still, said Huddy, women tend to take on the failures of a woman leader. “If she fails, a lot of women are going to feel that it is a personal failure.”
One of the most annoying parts of all this? It can be tough for women leaders to push back against sexist attacks without inviting even more sneering. “You can try to call people out on it, but you have to be a little bit careful,” said Huddy. “People will say you’re playing the woman card, that you’re a crybaby, that you can’t handle it.”
“Sexism is more socially acceptable than racism,” said Jennifer Lawless, of American University. Multiple women, in fact, brought up a couple of examples from Hillary’s 2008 campaign. One was the low-grade sexism of some in the mainstream media. (MSNBC’s Chris Matthews is still considered the worst offender, with his “Nurse Ratched” crack and gripes about Hillary’s “cackle.”) Then there were the two hecklers at a New Hampshire rally who waved signs and chanted, “Iron my shirt!” Clinton laughed it off, and the incident was reported mostly as dumbass 20-something guys acting like dumbass 20-something guys. But if someone had yelled an equivalently demeaning remark at Obama—like, say, “Shine my shoes!”—the public response likely would have been very different.
Gillard agrees. “In some ways, I think we put a burden on women in the face of gender attacks that doesn’t necessarily play out in the face of racist attacks,” she told me. Take the episode with the anti-tax protesters, she said: “I have made the point since that, if Australia had an aboriginal Australian prime minister and the opposition leader went and stood in front of signs that said, ‘Sack the black,’ or inserted any of the dreadful words we have for aboriginal Australians, it would have been a career-ending moment. And if an indigenous Australian prime minister had complained about that, I don’t think people would say, ‘Oh, he is just playing the victim.’ But that is what gets said about women who complain about sexism. There is an added kind of layer that women leaders are just supposed to take it on the chin and not complain about it.”
This is why it is so important for the public to speak out—loudly—against this kind of nonsense in all its forms, said Gillard. Appalled by what she has seen so far in the U.S. presidential election, in July the former prime minister wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling for the “naming and shaming of any sexism” in the race. Vigorous public debate about a president’s decisions is “100 percent legitimate,” Gillard told me. But “as soon as the gendered bit starts raising its head, men and women of good will should be saying: ‘No. Stop that.’”
Depressed yet? Don’t be. As unpleasant as it may be, this type of backlash pretty much has to happen for society to move forward.
As with any barrier breaking, things are always brutal for the first person to challenge a norm, but then it gets progressively easier. “The amplitude of this style of reaction goes down every time,” observed Gillard.
Thus, there have to be people like Gillard and Obama and Clinton who are willing to take the hits. (God knows, Hillary knows how to take some hits!) “This kind of trail blazing opens the way for others,” said Huddy. “Someone has to do it.”
Said Gillard, “We do need to go through that so we can hit a time where it’s so normal for a woman to be president—or for an African American or a Hispanic or a Native American to be president—in the United States that people don’t really comment on it.”
Until then, forward-thinking women might want to start working to reclaim the word “bitch” from the haters ASAP. Seriously. Bitches of the world unite! Indeed, if Hillary wins in November, I am immediately ordering a dozen hoodies emblazoned with the theme of that brilliant Saturday Night Live riff Tina Fey did about Clinton’s 2008 run: “Bitches get stuff done!” All my girlfriends should expect one for Christmas.