At the Republican Convention last week, attendees had the chance to wear their sexist derision for Hillary Clinton with pride. Just outside, hawkers sold T-shirts emblazoned with “Trump vs Tramp”, bumper stickers proclaiming “Life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one,” and the badges printed with “KFC Hillary Special: 2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts, one left wing”.
If that last one sounds familiar, it should. Almost exactly the same “joke” was made at the expense of Australia’s first female prime minister in a menu at a fundraiser for Liberal MP Mal Brough: “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box”.
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It is hard not to recall the experiences of Gillard when watching the rise of Hillary Clinton, even without this direct repurposing of misogynist jibes (indeed, Gillard herself wrote on this topic on Wednesday too).
As prime minister, Gillard was the subject of enormous scrutiny and criticism, much of which was substantive, and held her to account for her policies and deeds. But outright sexism and double standards were also a real part of the story of her time in politics. As Gillard herself said, in her final press conference as prime minister in 2013, the gender issue “doesn’t explain everything, it doesn’t explain nothing, it explains some things”.
The same can be said of Clinton, now the Democratic Party’s official nominee for president of the United States. There have been some compelling critiques – from Bernie Sanders and others – of her foreign policy hawkishness, apparent cosiness with the finance sector and careless use of private email, the latter of which has seriously hit perceptions of her trustworthiness.
But sexism is a part of the Hillary Clinton story too.
There are the really obvious, vulgar comments, like those badges, or Donald Trump retweeting (then deleting) comments like “if Clinton can’t satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America?”
But there is less obvious stuff too, which comes from both political foes and commentators, and finds its way into the mainstream discourse.
There’s the unending obsession with her demeanour – she shouts too much, according to Trump, she doesn’t smile enough, according to at least one prominent TV host. Nevermind Trump and Sanders have spent most of the year angrily shouting. With them, commentators keep telling us it’s a compelling expression of the nation’s rage – from a woman, it’s a flaw.
Or there’s the earnest discussion of her likeability and relatability. A David Brooks column from The New York Times typified this – questioning why Clinton was so popular as secretary of state (66 per cent approval rating) and so disliked while running for president. Brooks didn’t countenance that it might be that the inherent ambition in running for president, and the combative nature of that pursuit, from a woman, that some find unlikeable – in contrast to being chosen and serving competently as secretary of state.
One conclusion Brooks drew was that her workaholic persona was off-putting in a president. “Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun? We know what Obama does for fun – golf, basketball,” he wrote.
There’s little reflection in much media that supposedly common measures of relatability and even hobbies might be gender-specific too. Clinton, like many women her age, is a voracious reader, who has spoken about devouring mystery novels. But few of the male journalists endeared by Obama’s knowledge of the NBA seem interested in this. The pub or beer test (would I want to have a beer with this person?) still rules in political journalism, but it’s one that inherently favours machismo or those who can ape it. What if we applied a book club test of likeability instead – which politicians would you invite around for a few glasses of white and a good chat about the latest Elena Ferrante?
Nevermind Trump and Sanders have spent most of the year angrily shouting. With them, commentators keep telling us it’s a compelling expression of the nation’s rage – from a woman, it’s a flaw.
The Times reported this week that Clinton looks to be doing as well as or better than Obama in virtually all demographics – black and Hispanic people of all levels of education, white men and women with degrees – with the strong exception of white men without a degree. Popularity is an issue for Clinton but it’s not an objective, universal one but one with clear racial, class and gender dimensions, and it’s silly to pretend otherwise.
And then there’s the vehement, deeply righteous hatred that Clinton, like Gillard, attracts. Like “Juliar” Gillard, who Alan Jones once said should be dumped at sea in a chaff bag, “Shillary” Clinton is the subject of unhinged, punitive fantasies from public figures, like the Trump adviser who last week called for her to be shot, or the mock witch-trial staged by Republican governor Chris Christie at the convention. It’s arguable whether misogyny is at the root of all these incendiary assaults – there are likely a few factors at play – but there is an alarmingly vicious and personal line of attack that seems to follow women, especially on the Left, and eludes their male colleagues with similar views and records.
The day Julia Gillard left the job, and said gender accounted for some, but not all, of her treatment, she suggested it was for the public to think in a “sophisticated way about those shades of grey”.
With Clinton now the Democratic nominee, it is worth thinking again about how attitudes about gender are shaping her campaign and coverage, and if she wins, her presidency. It doesn’t explain everything, but it doesn’t explain nothing either.
Josephine Tovey is a Fairfax Media journalist based in New York.