Hillary Clinton hasn’t even announced that she is running for president in 2016, but the speculation alone has created a media frenzy. But while her run may be unconfirmed, one thing is for certain: any woman seeking to crack that “highest and hardest glass ceiling” will have to contend with a political culture that is hostile to women.
It is no secret that misogyny has marred Clinton's own political career. Her public speaking skills became legendary when she was only a senior at Wellesley College, but her critics deride her speeches as “hysterical” and “shrill," casting female assertiveness as shrewishness. The notion that women belong in the home and not in politics was further pushed by hecklers who interrupted her 2008 campaign rally in New Hampshire, shouting, “Iron my shirt." As Fox News contributor Marc Rudov helpfully explained, “When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, ‘Take off for the future.’ And when Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage.’” Such experiences helped Mrs. Clinton relate to Australia’s former Prime Minister, the recently ousted Julia Gillard, who also battled sexism throughout her leadership (a dinner for the opposing Liberal Party featured the dish “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail” on their menu, described as having “small breasts, huge thighs).
As in Australia, women politicians in the United States have also faced unwelcome remarks on their appearances. A producer at the Boston radio station WRKO AM endorsed Karyn Polito, a 2010 Republican candidate for governor in Massachusetts, for her “banging little body” and “tight little butt.” While Molly Ball at the Atlantic makes a compelling argument that covering a female politician’s wardrobe is not necessarily sexist, her claim that men receive similar coverage is disingenuous. Journalists might mention Mitt Romney’s immaculately coiffed hair, but Hillary Clinton’s scrunchies and headbands have been the focus of entire articles for over two decades. Endless articles and blog posts have been devoted to the emergence of “right-wing hotties” like Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Christine O’Donnell, but similar coverage of Scott Brown’s nude centerpiece in Cosmopolitan or Congressman Aaron Schock’s six pack on the cover of Men’s Health is relatively scant.
As the detractors of Sandra Fluke proved, it is not just the presence of female politicians that can be threatening; a female citizen simply voicing her opinion is intolerable enough. Rather than engaging with Fluke’s testimony on contraception and health care on a rational level, her opponents called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.” Such attacks, as Ms. Fluke herself pointed out, were attempts to silence her through humiliation, and discourage other women from joining the public discourse.
Even when women’s opinions are considered, they often aren’t taken seriously. For one, women were consistently portrayed as a monolithic voting bloc in the last election. Politicians and journalists alike endlessly discussed which candidate women would vote for, based on the issues that they cared about. It is not surprising that these same people also said that the only issue important to women was the economy; if you’re reductionist enough to believe that all women will vote in one way (based on their hormone levels, according to one CNN contributor), you’d also probably think that women are too simple-minded to hold complex political beliefs.
It is in this context that the record-breaking number of women in Congress - just barely reaching a sad 19 percent - must be celebrated. In a larger sense, Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster was symbolic of women’s tenacity and willpower in an unwelcoming political climate. Rather than admitting defeat, Hillary Clinton channeled the sexism thrown her way to become a strong advocate for women and children. As the media obsessed over her makeup and pantsuits, she worked tirelessly, becoming the most widely travelled Secretary of State. Confirming the worst fears of the male pundits and politicos that disparage Mrs. Clinton, her resilience motivates other women, too. A recent study shows that women’s confidence in public speaking improves just by looking at her picture. It will not be a fair fight for any woman in 2016, but it is a battle that can be painstakingly won.
Mitch McConnell said that a Democratic ticket featuring Clinton would “look like a rerun of The Golden Girls.” McConnell might be dismissive of the capabilities of older women, but as anyone who has seen the show knows, those ladies can weather any crisis, all they need is 22 minutes and a slice of cheesecake. With odds like that, who wouldn’t want Dorothy Zbornak for president?