Once upon a time (and a very good time it was not) a woman who achieved electoral office in her own right was a rarity and a threat. Consequently such women often found it necessary to adopt articles of dress that signified, “I’m not a threat; I’m still just a woman.” Think of the white rose worn in her lapel every day by Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME), or Bella Abzug (D-NY)’s notorious hats.
In time as women became a more familiar presence in governments at all levels, they no longer needed these accoutrements. But the media continued to spend excessive amounts of time talking about women candidates and officeholders in terms of their dress (pantsuits; pantsuit colors; cleavage; hair style; skirt length; makeup; and much more). Male candidates virtually never received this kind of attention, unless their surface appearance was strikingly odd. (I can think of two exceptions to this statement: Barney Frank and Bernie Sanders, both regularly called “rumpled.” But they are both others and outsiders: one is gay, the other openly Socialist.) The fixation on external appearance for women, to the exclusion of political positions, helped to establish women in politics as superficial, sexualized, uninteresting, and trivial objects of the male gaze, rather than persons acting in their own right.
In 2008, the first presidential election in which a woman was a serious contender, the trend continued: there was endless attention paid to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s pantsuits, her cleavage, how often she smiled and when she “wept.”
Now, as HRC is again declared “inevitable,” the habit seems to be in decline. I have seen very little attention paid in media discourse to Clinton’s dress or self-presentation. So have the media learned something? Has women’s presence at the highest levels of political ambition finally been normalized? Sure.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. It is first of all amusing to note that only one primary candidate has received an inordinate amount of attention for looks, and that is the recent Democratic entrant, Martin O’Malley, almost invariably described in language to the effect of “immensely attractive.” To me he seems perfectly OK, his eyes are in the right places in his head and so on, but he’s no Paul Newman, so the attention given to his looks is remarkable. I find myself wondering what it means: are commentators, deliberately or not, setting up the basis of a later argument that Democratic women will abandon Clinton in favor of the dreamboat, since women are both dumb and hyper-sexualized. (Shades of John McCain, whose not unrelated choice of Sarah Palin — on the basis that her place on the ballot would make Democratic women vote Republican — was both misogynistic and irrational.)
But at least commentators seem to have left looksism behind. Still, I don’t think it’s time yet for celebration. When the obvious old-fashioned ways of misogyny are discredited, new ones are sure to emerge. Right now I am watching two new strategies for discrediting Clinton and destroying her candidacy fall into place: mansplaining and constraining.
“Mansplaining” is a currently fashionable term for what men too often do to women: they interpret what women have already expressed with perfect clarity (“what she means is….”); they tell women what they should do. Already as First Lady (I discussed this in The Language War), Clinton’s every utterance was being subjected to Delphic scrutiny. There was even then a great deal of whining about her lack of transparency: she was manipulative, secretive, and deceptive. And of course, she still is.
The second method of mansplaining is to tell women how to do it right, whatever it may be. Currently, every public savant has been opining about how Clinton should run her candidacy. Should she present herself as liberal or centrist? “Expand the party’s reach,” as David Brooks puts it, or “consolidate the base”? Use Bill or lose Bill? Chris Matthews and his panelists on Hardball cover this ground just about every day. Ruth Wodak forwards an interesting article from the Guardian arguing that she should push Bill into the shadows, that his actions as President and more recently must redound to her discredit. But the author does not ask important questions: to what degree is it reasonable to assume that “the man and wife are one, and that one is the man”? Could it be that HRC’s beliefs and plans might turn out to be quite different from Bill’s? Must she be held to account for his behavior?
Perhaps contemporary society has abandoned Blackstone’s ancient dictum of coverture: the Nineteenth Amendment, legislation ensuring women the right to work and be educated, as well as the right to own property, make that clear. But the idea encapsulated in the old adage was popular for a long time, and such ideas are seldom readily and fully abandoned. They continue to fester in dark corners, and the commentary that places Bill’s actions in Hillary’s account is one such place. It does seem remarkable that the dictum has been subjected, as far as I know, to no scrutiny at all.
David Brooks’s op-ed in the June 9 issue of the New York Times, telling Clinton how to run, is yet another recent example. When you think of it, these commentators and their ilk demonstrate extraordinary amounts of chutzpah (or would if the target were not an uppity female). Think about it: who has been involved, at the highest levels, in uncountable political campaigns over most of a lifetime – and who has not? Usually, it is the person who has been there, who has seen and heard what actually goes on and deals with the consequences and has thus learned from her experience who is deemed the expert, to whom others defer, whom others ask for advice. Yet Clinton is expected to receive the advice of neophytes with gratitude, because they are men and she is not.
And finally, political males are highly reluctant to abandon the myth that women seeking positions of power are really only “speaking for” their menfolk: they have nothing of their own to offer. So the men have to step in and mansplain, when the gals can’t get it right.
The worst case of this is that of the Pakistani men who insist that Malala had been “put up to it” by men. But we find versions of the same sentiment here, albeit carefully toned down. In Sunday’s (6/7) New York Times, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is arguing against Clinton going left – yes, mansplaining again. But he goes a bit further:
“If they get her too far over,” he says, “it’s going to be more difficult to govern, it truly is.”
The implication is that she couldn’t possibly decide to “go over” all by herself’ they have to get her there. She cannot possibly be autonomous.
When they are not mansplaining, the commentariat is constraining: doing their damnedest to keep Clinton from speaking and thus achieving her ultimate goal. We can understand how this is being accomplished if we recall a couple of recent Supreme Court decisions (Citizens United and McCutcheon), equating money with speech in political discourse. The effect has been to require plausible candidates to amass ever-larger war chests: the one with the biggest wad is most likely to emerge the victor. (To his credit, Bernie Sanders has refused to play this game; but no one, probably including Sanders, thinks he is going to be settling into the Oval Office on January 20, 2017.) If money = speech, and speech = exposure and influence, then a candidate, to be plausible, has to gain access to the largest amounts of money possible, so as to produce the largest amounts possible of speech.
Arguably this is particularly true of the first real female candidate for the presidency. Women need first of all to establish legitimacy in this arena, and the more a female candidate can be a familiar presence, via rhetorical means, the more plausible and legitimate she becomes: she becomes normal as she becomes usual. In order to lessen the force of ancient misogynist stereotypes, a woman will have to present herself for inspection as often as possible, to seem not bossy or greedy, not a mindless babbler, not a scary man-killer, not a bizarre impossibility. That can be accomplished, in America today, only with advertising and lots of it. And advertising costs money.
Opponents of Clinton’s candidacy and presidency who are employed by reputable and even liberal media outlets are too cagey to come out and say that the thought of female butt in the chair behind the desk in the Oval Office makes their favorite body part turn black and fall off plink! to the floor. But they seem to have settled ingeniously on an alternative rhetoric to the same desired effect: make it much more difficult or impossible for Clinton to amass and use money (that is, speak). They are trying, in other words, to constrain her.
It has been axiomatic for many years that, in the words of Jesse Unruh, for many years a highly influential California politician, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” But those with the mother’s milk are not supposed to mess with money, literally or (via SCOTUS) figuratively. That is Clinton’s real crime – forget the emails and Benghazi. She is attempting to play the game following boys’ rules. That cannot be forgiven. The Repubilcans are merely playing the game as it must be played. That’s OK. The Republicans have been making pilgrimages to the haunts of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, and have been, by all accounts, well rewarded for it. But they have not been smeared the way Clinton has for being interested in money.
Frank Bruni may be the most vehement of all the Times Clinton-haters (and that is pretty vehement). In his 6/7 column he approvingly quotes Jack Shafer, a Politico columnist:
Such findings will fluctuate, as Jack Shafer noted aptly and archly in Politico: “While glory awaits the journalist who buries Hillary Clinton, carves her tombstone and tidies her grave, the makings of her demise cannot be read in these poll results. Clinton rides a favorability roller coaster, and has been riding it hard for the past 23 years.”
Mansplaining and constraining could easily achieve their goals (and the mansplaining constrainers would gleefully point out, yet again, that the loss was her fault.
If, despite their efforts, Hillary Rodham Clinton is elected on November 8, 2016, a lot of very prominent liberal guys will undergo spontaneous combustion. KAPOW!!
Let’s help make that happen. Get your marshmallows ready.