Hillary Plays the Gender Card

By Wendy Kaminer

        Hillary Clinton has effectively focused on overcoming one of the primary obstacles to electing a female president: the association of women with pacifism, the belief that women are not tough enough to lead a nation in war.  Early on in her Senate term, she gained a seat on the Armed Services Committee, in an apparent quest for visibility and credibility on military issues.  As Clinton adviser, Ann Lewis said to me 15 years ago, a woman who wants to be president will have to convince voters of her ability to wage war:  “We would know we had the first woman candidate for president when we saw a female senator on a battleship, reviewing the troops," Lewis recalled saying to a group of women (long before most of us had heard of Hillary Clinton.)  "And someone said, ‘That’s terrible.  Do we have to repeat the military tradition?’  And I said,  'No, you don’t have to repeat it.  You can vote for Mother Theresa.' ” 

        So it’s not surprising that Clinton voted for the Iraq war and the recent Senate resolution condemning the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization.  A female democrat with no record of military service seeking the presidency in a time of war would have to be a lot less cautious than Clinton to risk appearing weak on national security.
        But while Clinton assures voters that she’s tough enough to face down the demented tyrants in North Korea or Iran, she appeals to their sense of chivalry when criticized by her male opponents.  It is conventional political wisdom, and possibly true, that male candidates should take care not to be overly aggressive in criticizing female opponents.  (As a black male running against a white female, Barack Obama may feel compelled to be more careful than most.) In Clinton’s first successful Senate race she benefited from the sense that her Republican opponent, the hapless Rick Lazio, had approached her too aggressively on a debate stage.  She’s apparently hoping that the criticisms directed at her in Tuesday’s presidential debate will similarly backfire.

        According to the Washington Post, Clinton’s advisers claim “that the ‘piling on’ engaged in by an all-male field of opponents will ultimately drive more female voters into her camp.”  To help make this dream come true, the Clinton camp posted a video on You Tube called the “Politics of Pile-On, comprising clips from Tuesday night’s debate.

        But it’s a little hard to blame Clinton for decrying female stereotypes one day and hiding behind them the next.  Election campaigns are not exercises in fair play, and besides, women seeking leadership positions or other traditionally male jobs must often contend with contradictory expectations.  If they appear too tough, angry, or assertive they’re punished for being insufficiently feminine (“bitchy” or “strident”;) if they’re soft-spoken and conciliatory, they’re considered not tough or commanding enough to lead.  As the New York Times reported today, commenting on a study by Catalyst, “women who act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes — defined as focusing ‘on work relationships’ and expressing ‘concern for other people’s perspectives’ — are considered less competent.  But if they act in ways that are seen as more ‘male’ — like ‘act assertively, focus on work task, display ambition’ — they are seen as ‘too tough’ and ‘unfeminine.’ ”

    Still, it would be interesting to see one of Clinton’s opponents challenge her exploitation of feminine stereotypes; girlishness does not become her.

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