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Hillary Clinton & the Professional Woman’s Double Bind

Now that Hillary Clinton has announced her run for president, it’s just a matter of time before the sexist comments and criticisms appear. They’ll be transparent and obvious by the red-meat hosts of political talk radio. Though I wish they didn’t exist, those don’t concern me. The ones that do are the comments that are more subtle and accepted as the “conventional wisdom.”

Many times people don’t even recognize their criticisms would not be applied to a man in a similar position. It’s unconscious, born of years of socialization about women’s traditional place in society. Furthermore, many of the offenders are women, themselves. We are hard on each other.

I’ve made a list below of some of the more common ones that we all need to watch out for…

She’s too ambitious.
I’ll never forget when a man said this to me the first time she ran. As if a woman with her resume should step aside for someone like Barack Obama, who, at the time, had a resume that was quite thin. Being ambitious is never a bad thing for a man, nor should it be for a woman.

She’s too old.
I’ve already heard this one. Someone just compared her to Ronald Reagan, our oldest president, and the sad fact he ended up having Alzheimer’s disease, which was probably present in the latter years of his presidency. The standard for women when it comes to aging is impossible to meet. Instead, think about it this way: She’s old and she knows a lot. When I think about what I knew when I was 40 and what I know now, it’s hard to believe the volume of information, wisdom, and mastery that I’ve gained.

What in the world is she wearing?
If she is elected, she’ll be able to shine because women have tremendous latitude when it comes to looking elegant and leader-like. Until then, she’ll be relegated to boring clothes. Male candidates certainly dress in a boring way. (Can you say khakis and oxford shirts with rolled up sleeves?) While women are held to a different standard, as a candidate, conservative dress and adornment are good things.

She needs a makeover.
Women’s faces reflect the stress and lack of sleep associated with a run of this magnitude more than men’s. Our skin is thinner (literally, not figuratively) so the lines and wrinkles and bags and circles are more obvious. Women are also expected to wear makeup and have styled hair at all times in public. We cannot always look perfectly styled and it cannot be helped. So please, cut her — and the rest of us professional women — some slack.

She sounds shrill. (She cackles, sounds like a witch, etc.)
Voices are critical for candidates, as well as in speaking and communicating for all professionals. And Hillary doesn’t have the best speaking voice, especially in the big arenas and venues. That being said, all voices get tired and even damaged from overuse. No one ever criticized Bill Clinton’s hoarse, raspy voice. In fact, it became a kind of “country lawyer” -ish trait. Women’s vocal chords  (like their skin) thinner and smaller and, therefore, naturally about an octave or so higher than men’s. To compare women’s voices to men’s is apples and oranges.

She’s not a good mother (or wife or grandmother).
This is one of the worst criticisms you can lob at a woman, if she has kids, that is. (If she doesn’t, she’s disqualified from becoming president, which is totally ridiculous on its face, and fodder for another time.). Because of the lingering prejudice that insists women’s place is in the home, anyone who doesn’t conform is still suspect (See: Mommy Wars). Men are rarely evaluated on their fatherhood or penalized if they don’t conform.

She’s got baggage.
Yes, that’s true. Lots of it. Some of it self-inflicted. And there will probably be more. So does every, single man who’s ever held the office.

She’s too aggressive.
This is one of the hardest things professional women have to deal with. It’s tough out there and you have to be tough and play tough. This is what we’re advised, to toughen up, develop a thicker skin. Yet, when we act in exactly that way, people label us as unlikeable or bitches. And this penalty is levied by both men and other women. Whoever becomes president will have to be aggressive, decisive and very, very tough.

I want to make something very clear: You don’t have to be a Hillary Clinton supporter to be mindful this is a real issue for all professional women. Social norms and messages are incredibly powerful and difficult to resist. We all harbor biases to varying degrees.

So, how do you know if you’re being sexist? That’s easy: if you wouldn’t apply the critique to a man, don’t apply it to a woman, whether that woman is a Democrat or a Republican, whether that woman is Hillary Clinton, your mother, your wife, or your daughter.

2 thoughts on “Hillary Clinton & the Professional Woman’s Double Bind”

  1. Excellent points, Ruth. Ever since reading “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, I feel a responsibility to find gracious ways to cut a swath for my daughters and grand-daughters. Your article is on point and gracious at the same time. Ah- that’s because that’s who you are. Bravo.

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