When it comes to the fight for women’s rights and gender equality, I believe having a woman as president is not nearly as vital as having a president who will fight for women’s rights, especially because both those things are not synonymous. But nevertheless, electing a woman as the president of the United States of America would be a step forward for not only America, but the world. That female president need not be Hillary Clinton — but it is worth taking a closer look at what makes her so “unlikeable” to so many, and what that means for the chance of America electing a woman as a president for the next few elections.
Likability is such a fickle and almost ridiculous parameter in judging a president — and yet the structure of a presidential system as opposed to the Westminster system means that the focus on the individual is inevitable. As the neurologists weighing in on Ted Cruz’s “creepy” smile prove — a presidential candidate’s fate can be decided in the judgements we make about whether they are likable people. And obviously, judging a president on likability is deeply flawed — but it is inevitable that some people will make their choices and find their reasons for voting following these judgements. And the debate that Hillary is unlikable is so worn out that there is a 256-page New York Times bestseller about it named, originally, “Unlikeable: The problem with Hillary.”
And one of the principle reasons Hillary Clinton is viewed as unlikable and untrustworthy is that she is is so tied to the establishment — and yet, like the dog-whistle politics at play when GOP ads in 2008 depicted President Obama with darker skin — there is a lot that can be unpacked from what makes her unlikable to the public.
Although President Obama having darker skin isn’t negative objectively, the implicit narrative of those ads was catering to the racist tendencies in the public. The doublethink involved in that action — to recognize that yes, President Obama is black, and yet, that in this context that fact was being convoluted to be used in a deceitful way — is also involved in Hillary Clinton’s unlikability. Because for a lot of people, Hillary Clinton isn’t unlikable because she is a woman; she is unlikable because she is so tied to big money and a government that is seen as out-of-touch with people. But being a woman, she had to work her way up through the establishment to stand a chance at the presidency, and so the allegation of being the” establishment’s candidate,” even though not gendered, nevertheless punishes her for being a woman and having limited paths to the White House.
Like the benign violation theory of humor — there is a formula for what we accept in politics too. While in humor, someone polite and benign like Seinfeld has to find outrageous things about everyday events to create a violation, in politics, someone who is already the picture of “establishment” — i.e. a white male like Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump — can afford to present themselves as somewhat anarchist. But Clinton is already pushing the envelope by being female — and so she has to remain closer to the mainstream to be taken seriously. In that manner, her gender limits her options in rhetoric, and the options she is left with have to fall in line with what is more mainstream and typical, and seen as a part of a rigid old system.
President Obama was so successful because he did not give an inch to those who wanted to paint him, stereotypically, as an “angry black man.” But yet again, that dignity, which contributed so much to President Obama’s win, when found in Jeb Bush, had a vastly different effect.
Of course, none of these minute factors of perception can define a candidate’s fate entirely — but when we criticize Clinton, we have to take into account what prejudices affect those judgements. And if it is repeated ad nauseam that it is motivated by gender stereotypes, it is simply because gender stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in our thought that they usually are the reason we feel a dislike for her.
And maybe Clinton deserves our mistrust — but if that uneasiness stems from her long tenure in politics and incremental rise, we have to evaluate if it will ever be possible for a serious female candidate for president to rise in any other way, because this is a problem of perception that Clinton can’t solve — because the problem lies in the system, and in everyday citizens.
Women are required to work through the system — to win despite those odds. It is worth considering that if Clinton hadn’t been such a public figure — if she had been a relatively unknown household name before this election, she wouldn’t have stood a chance at all. It is worth considering that as a woman, she would take much longer to prove her legitimacy as a leader and to prove her competence.
It is unfortunate that the realities of the limited paths available to women to the White House involve the very same thing that could lead to their fall — because as Trump so tragically proves, Americans are increasingly growing disillusioned with the electoral process and with the governing elite.
That this deep mistrust between people and those who are supposed to represent them and lead them towards better ideals is widening is concerning in and of itself — that Clinton represents that same elite and yet the Democratic nomination is framed as hers to lose is equally worrisome.
But that reality cannot cancel out that the path she chose was one she forged — and is one of the few available to women aspiring to lead America.
My argument is not that Clinton is a feminist icon — or that she should be. My argument is also not that America desperately needs a female president at all costs — because I definitely don’t believe that. My argument is simply that the very things that make Clinton unlikable are those that enable women to even reach her level of leadership — and even if that is not directly motivated by gender, it is still concerning.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.