American politics is a brutal game, but it’s particularly bruising for women.
A number of women are vying to become the Democratic party’s U.S. presidential nominee in 2020. And given the heavy hits that Hillary Rodham Clinton took in 2016 when she ran for president, they will certainly face challenges, encounter barriers and double standards, and absorb sexist taunts that their male counterparts will never endure.
In her 2017 book, What Happened, Clinton expresses “years’ worth of frustration about the tightrope” that she and “other women have had to walk in order to participate in American politics.”
“In politics, the personal narrative is vital,” Clinton says of American politics. She points out that both her husband, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama both told powerful personal stories about their humble beginnings and rise to success. And those narratives helped them win the White House.
The ongoing struggle for women’s equality is the story of Clinton and millions of other women. And without a doubt, she has been one of the leaders of the movement. For example, she was one of just 27 women to graduate out of 235 students in her class at Yale Law School. She was the first woman to become a partner at the oldest law firm in Arkansas. And she boldly declared at the UN Women’s Conference at Beijing in 1995: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”
Clinton is the only first lady to be elected to public office, winning a Senate seat in 2000. “And I was the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party and win the national popular vote,” she writes of the controversial 2016 campaign.
The main reason Clinton “shied away from embracing” her own feminist narrative in 2016 was because “storytelling requires a receptive audience.” And the feminist trailblazer reveals that she “never felt like the American electorate was receptive to this one.” Moreover, she contends that America is not yet a place where “the story of a life shaped by and devoted to the movement for women’s liberation would be “cheered, not jeered.”
“This has to be said: sexism and misogyny played a role in the 2016 presidential election,” Clinton declares in What Happened. “Exhibit A is that the flagrantly sexist candidate won.”
That so many Americans listened to the Access Hollywood tape on which Donald Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women and voted for him anyway is evidence of the sexism and misogyny ingrained in American society.
“But Donald Trump didn’t invent sexism, and its impact on our politics goes far beyond this one election,” Clinton continues. “Sexism exerts its pull on our politics and our society every day, in ways both subtle and crystal clear.”
Clinton is careful to draw a distinction between sexism and misogyny. She defines sexism as “all the big and little ways that society draws a box around women and says, ‘You stay in there’.” However, she explains that “misogyny is something different,” describing it as “rage,” “disgust” and “hatred.”
She explains that this hatred of women “happens when a woman turns down a guy at a bar and he switches from charming to scary.” And she says misogyny can rear its ugly head “when a woman gets a job that a man wanted and instead of shaking her hand and wishing her well, he calls her a bitch and vows to do everything he can to make sure she fails.”
In her book, Clinton describes how hateful and even frightening the 2016 campaign was. “It’s not easy for any woman in politics, but I think it’s safe to say that I got a whole other level of vitriol flung my way,” she writes. For example, she recalls crowds at Trump rallies calling for her to be locked up.
The abuse was not only directed at Clinton but also at her supporters, who endured “vicious sexist online harassment, from both the right and the left.” And she expresses frustration that the existence of sexism and misogyny are “still up for debate.”
There is statistical evidence that supports what Clinton is saying about sexism and misogyny. According to a 2018 study sponsored by a coalition of nongovernmental organizations, sexual harassment and sexual assault are major problems in the United States.
“The findings in this study are a necessary wake-up call to leaders and ordinary citizens alike to examine our culture in the United States to understand how it allows so much sexual abuse to take place, particularly against women and other historically marginalized communities,” notes the report, which is entitled “The Facts Behind the #MeToo Movement: A National Study on Sexual Harassment and Assault.”
“Not only is it necessary to understand the scope of this issue, but it is imperative for people from all walks of life to work on both short-term and long-term concerted and co-ordinated efforts to prevent sexual harassment and assault,” the report’s author, Holly Kearl, writes. The organizations involved in the production of the study included: Stop Street Harassment; GfK; Raliance; and UC San Diego Center on Gender Equity and Health.
The study’s survey found that sexual harassment and sexual violence in the United States are pervasive, with 81 per cent of women reporting “experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.”
In addition, three in four women experienced verbal sexual harassment. Approximately 41 per cent of women experienced cyber sexual harassment. And the survey revealed that one in two women was “sexually touched in an unwelcome way.”
Stalked during debate
During their second debate, the Republican presidential candidate stalked Clinton onstage, coming up from behind, breathing down her neck. “My skin crawled,” Clinton says of Trump’s invasion of her personal space. She kept her composure and opted not to tell him to back off. But she wonders had she “told off Trump,” how would it have been received?
“A lot of people recoil from an angry woman, or even just a direct one,” she writes. She notes that Elizabeth Warren, a current contender for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, was “silenced in the Senate chamber for reading a letter from Coretta Scott King because it was critical of Jeff Sessions, a male senator, during his confirmation hearing for attorney general.” Yet moments later, a male senator was permitted to read the same letter.
Clinton recalls how Sen. Kamala Harris, another Democratic contender for 2020, was characterized as “hysterical” for her professional questioning of Sessions during his Senate confirmation hearing.
The assault on female politicians “doesn’t just happen to women on the Democratic side of politics,” Clinton offers. For instance, Trump insulted Carly Fiorina’s face when she ran against him for the Republican party’s nomination in 2016.
Accompanied by fear
“Something I wish every man across America understood is how much fear accompanies women throughout our lives,” Clinton writes. “So many of us have been threatened or harmed.”
In the book, Clinton relates an incident that happened to her when she was working on President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign in Indiana. During a dinner meeting with state Democratic party officials, the twenty something Clinton tried to get information out of the older men, who grew annoyed at her persistence.
“Suddenly one of the men reached across the table, grabbed me by the turtleneck, and yanked me toward him,” she recalls. He then demanded that she “shut up.” Clinton broke free, told him to never touch her again, and walked out of the room on “shaking legs.” The incident lasted just 30 seconds, but she believes that she’ll “never forget it.”
Lest Canadians feel morally superior to our American cousins, it should be noted that The Canadian Press recently reported that federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna receives a constant barrage of online attacks and even threats of violence. The threats are serious enough to reportedly require special security measures.
Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.