It seems inevitable now that the election for the next president of the United States will pit Hillary Clinton, the first woman to be nominated as a presidential candidate by a major party, against Donald Trump, a highly atypical candidate who has thus far succeeded by breaking all the rules. Invective, sleaze, dirty tricks and falsehoods have always been part of American political campaigning, and even in 2016 women in politics incur more than their fair share of demeaning and sexist remarks, but it’s about to become even nastier, more personal and more sexist.
It is 144 years since an American woman first campaigned to be president. Victoria Woodhull, who ran for the radical Equal Rights Party, was a woman ahead of her time in every sense. She was a flamboyant suffragette, a newspaper owner, a spiritualist and believer in free love who wouldn’t stand a chance of getting elected even today, and she was running forty-eight years before the enactment of the nineteenth amendment to the constitution gave women the right to vote.
It wasn’t until a century later, in 1972, that Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to the US congress, became the first major-party black candidate for president and the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Her ground-breaking legacy was renewed during the 2008 presidential primaries when it became clear that the victor would be either the first major-party African American nominee (Barack Obama) or the first woman nominee (Hillary Clinton).
Chisholm said she ran for the office “in spite of hopeless odds… to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” As if to demonstrate this point, almost all the women who have made presidential runs have been leaders, often radicals, and feminists. The most notable exceptions have been recent candidates such as Michele Bachmann and Carly Fiorina.
Hillary Clinton has been part of the feminist landscape for decades and has fought against societal expectations for women. In doing so she has become as qualified to be president as any candidate before her. So it is particularly ironic that Clinton must battle it out against Trump, a political outsider with a history of questionable behaviour, who has consistently and publicly insulted, belittled, sexualised and stereotyped women.
But Trump’s modus operandi of personal attacks comes with a ferocity and nastiness that is independent of the sex of his opponents and those who speak out against him. He has used these psychological warfare tactics – demeaning nicknames, insinuations, jibes and outright lies in rallies and on social media – to defeat his opponents in the Republican primaries. This is Trump’s preferred style of battle and his indiscriminate nastiness does make it harder for Clinton and her allies to call him out as a sexist.
Trump’s recent contention that Clinton is playing the “woman’s card” and would be a failed candidate if she were a man gives a preview of his broad election strategy. He will use her potential to be the first woman president and the first female commander-in-chief against her. He will ensure that the debates in this campaign are about Clinton’s gender, and that includes making sure voters see her through the prism of her husband and his flaws. As Trump has already demonstrated, nothing will be off limits.
His attacks already encompass branding her as “crooked Hillary,” implying that her physical health and stamina are inadequate for the job, and invoking an enabling role for her in Bill Clinton’s infidelities and the suicide of White House counsel and friend Vince Foster. Of course, there are also areas where Clinton is genuinely vulnerable, and Trump consistently references the security lapses that led to the Benghazi attack and her problems over the use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. These issues are fair game in politics.
Trump’s gender-based attacks are a calculated risk: they will further alienate women and galvanise Democrats, but he knows he must sow doubts in the electorate about her qualifications for the presidency. Without the right pushbacks from authoritative voices, these attacks could ultimately be corrosive. Trump seems happy to ignore the gender gap among voters, and he continues to play the “man card” to great effect among many white male voters.
Hillary Clinton has already survived many sordid accusations over the course of her public life, but she will need to survive even more if she is to make it to the Oval Office. Trump knows that nothing unites Republicans more than the chance to beat up on the Bill, Hillary and Obama legacies. Clinton must counter the accusations and the dirt that will fly, but can’t afford to get down into the gutter with Trump.
She is not helped by the fact that Bernie Sanders is still engaged in his own campaign against her. Despite Clinton’s winning delegate lead, Sanders is apparently planning to take his presidential bid all the way to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia this July, so it looks like his rhetorical shots at Clinton will continue. Her campaign staff and allies fear Sanders’s persistent attacks will be used by Trump during the general election campaign, and indeed Trump has begun incorporating Sanders’s characterisations of Clinton into his stump speech. He frequently cites Sanders’s assertion that “something is clearly lacking” in Clinton’s judgement.
To date her most effective ally in taking on Trump on his own terms has been Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. She’s recently taken to baiting Donald Trump, engaging in the sort of taunting rants on social media – a Twitter war of words – at which Trump excels. These attacks contrast sharply with the measured retorts from the Clinton campaign. Warren’s efforts have provoked discussions about her future role, including that she might be considered as Clinton’s vice-presidential nominee. Certainly she could be used to help bring Sanders and his supporters on board for Clinton.
Meanwhile, Clinton faces a tough challenge just managing the ideological and policy differences with her opponent, given Trump’s unorthodox and constantly changing positions. He will campaign to the right of her on issues like immigration, gun rights, energy policy, abortion and Obamacare, but to the left of her on trade, infrastructure spending and the use of military force. He is endlessly dismissive of the Obama–Clinton foreign policy legacy. It remains to be seen how debates between the two candidates will play out, and this may depend on the willingness of the debate moderators to ask the difficult and meaningful questions rather than to play to Trump’s hand. Whether she wins the general election may be as much about Clinton’s ability to handle all that Trump will dish out as her experience and policies.
Clinton deliberately played down her gender in the 2008 campaign and this may well have played a role in her defeat. America does not like masculine women. This time around, she speaks more openly about the difficulties she has faced as a woman and about her role as a mother and grandmother, but even so, as the first woman to make it this far in the quest to become president, she has few guidelines and precedents to follow. Like Julia Gillard and Angela Merkel, Clinton has been pilloried for her fashion and her hair rather than her intellect.
While sociologists agree that clothing is a form of visual language, this apparently only applies to ties for men, though to every outfit, every day, for women. It’s hard to “look presidential” when there is no picture of what that would be for an American woman. The situation is complicated in a country like the United States where mature age women are rarely idolised and the ability to command the armed forces is linked to the wearing of military uniform. Husbands, especially if they have a significant history of their own, are an added distraction.
Carol Moseley Braun, the first African American woman elected to the US Senate and a candidate in the Democrat presidential primaries in 2004, summed it up this way: “Women have to acquire the authority that a man has simply because of his gender.” In her run for president, Hillary Clinton was always going to face a different set of challenges and a different type of treatment from her male opponent. That her opponent is Donald Trump makes her female candidacy even more difficult. •