‘Madam President’ and the need for a historical contextualization of the 2016 Race

Empirical research regarding the role of gender in positions of leadership (either corporate or political) has shown consistently over time the glass ceiling that many women face, and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Race has stirred the controversy regarding the gender dynamics of high office even further.

However, despite the growing success of women at the highest level of political power in recent times, gender – and in Hillary’s case, age, too – continues to impact heavily upon women’s opportunities to run for office (and win), and it would seem that the US is lagging behind other nations of the developed and the not-so-developed world on this. In fact, long before her, there have been other American women who paved the way for Hillary 2016. To name but a few, Victoria Woodhull was a suffragette who ran for the American presidency in 1872, Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president with the Democrats in 1984, Pat Schroeder had a brief time as a Democratic nominee in 1988 before her subsequent ‘emotional’ withdrawal from the race, and Sarah Palin was nominated for the Republican V.P in 2008. In short, the US political history is littered with women who started off to run for national leadership but withdrew along the way. Having served as secretary of state, it’s true that Hillary is not being questioned on her toughness – surely not as Ferraro was challenged about her capacity to defend the United States from the Soviets and ‘push the nuclear button’ on account of her gender. If nothing else, Hillary offers herself as the more measured, but no less tough, candidate and invokes Trump’s trigger-happy attitude as a warning against his candidacy. In one advertisement she actually employed Trump’s unsettling image near the nuclear red button to press this point. What she is being criticized, and sometimes ridiculed, about is her looks, body shape, attire, being ‘menopausal’ and fragile – in essence all those things that tap into stereotypical gender characteristics the presidential candidate Hillary does not have in abundance: youth, health, stamina, sexiness. For her critics, Hilary is a ‘flawed’ candidate for national political leadership not just because the US presidency is perceived as a ‘masculine’ task, to be carried out by a male leader; but also because she is seen to betray ‘traditional’ female characteristics, while having acquired more ‘masculine’ ones along the way (decisiveness, toughness) – hence we understand why ‘Bitch’ has stuck in the popular imagination. In fact, the way we’ve moved on from the more ‘cool’ context of HBIC (Head Bitch in Charge) as depicted in the ‘Texts from Hillary’ tumblr in 2012, where we saw a busy Hillary texting from an airplane hangar, posing as a real-life Anna Wintour, running the world behind her dark glasses, to ‘Life’s a Bitch—don’t vote for one’ tees, indicates the profound gender asymmetries surrounding female presidency in America.

The question remains though: why is this happening? Part of the answer may lay in the Protestant culture of the US, which is an outlier especially when compared to Protestant Europe. Jennifer Merolla and colleagues suggest that although the Reformation brought increased female participation in the sacred across Protestant countries in Europe, afforded through Bible reading and interpretation, and thus prepared the ground for more tolerant attitudes towards female leadership in all realms, such practices did not extend to the US where Protestantism took a socially conservative turn. This kind of socially conservative Protestantism, which sees female submission to male leadership as appropriate within the political realm, the church and family, is seen to have had a dampening effect on women’s political engagement in America and explains low female representation, especially in the highest level of political office. Accounts of a woman president of the United States surfaced in the early 20th century, along with the rise of the suffragette movement and technological futurism. However, the notion of a woman president was seen to run counter to technological progress and several headlines warned against the ‘danger of a woman becoming president of the United States’ . At a more nuanced level, such thinking challenged deeply entrenched ideas about women’s place in American society at a time when the dominant perception of white, middle class ‘appropriate’ femininity contextualized women in the private sphere of the domesticity. Drawing from Joanne Hollows’ work on ‘Domestic Cultures’, I argue that the gendered controversy surrounding Hillary’s 2016 nomination, and whether or not she is fit to lead, is the culmination of a century-long social construction of white, urban, middle-class American womanhood in modernity, which assumed that women’s ‘natural’ place in the world was exhausted at home, while working class, black and immigrant femininities reserved a more ‘public’ perception of womanhood. Τhe election outcome of 8 November goes to show the latent sexism American society is entrenched with, as well as Hillary’s inability to engage convincingly with public sentiments of anger about a rigged economy and government.