Using a well publicized incident in which Connie Chung essentially tricks Newt Gingrich’s mother into admitting that the then-Speaker of the House thought Hillary Clinton was a “bitch,” Karin Vasby Anderson explores the rhetoric that surrounds women in power and how it is used to contain women to the traditional private sphere, protecting the male-dominated public sphere from their influence.
In the early part of her article, Anderson asks the million dollar question: ‘how does a woman in a public position of power cultivate an image of competence and leadership without being dismissed as a “bitch”?’ She asks this question in 1999, and over fifteen years later we still do not have an answer.
Anderson covers a lot of material that has become familiar to us at this point – the assertive and task-driven accomplished woman is “shrill” and “bossy” while a man with similar attributes is a heralded leader; feminists are made out to be “ugly” and “man-hating,” and so on and so forth. As she address this, she makes what I believe is the most crucial point of her piece: ‘”Bitch” is more than an epithet – it is a rhetorical frame, a metaphor that shapes political narratives and governs popular understanding of women leaders.” (601)
After covering many tenets of Hillary Clinton’s run as First Lady (even mentioning an early version the “listening parties” that we read about a few weeks ago), Anderson shifts to the idea of “containment rhetoric;” specifically how the word “bitch” is used. Anderson notes that ‘”bitch is rhetorically threatening because of how efficiently is closes down space for women to act in the public sphere.” (615) All it takes is the application of the label, and whichever woman receives the brand is now powerless, as their actions and attitudes can all be prescribed to one word. Anderson also addresses the double bind that traps all women, especially those in leadership: ‘women who try to adapt similarly assertive leadership personae simply feed the stereotypes associated with “bitch.” If, however, a woman responds by “softening” her image she risks being criticized for lacking leadership capabilities.” (616) Despite advances in the scope of what women have accomplished, the rhetoric that surrounds women in power severely limits them in terms of what they can accomplish moving forward, how that will be perceived, and what they can do to combat this perception.
This is a frustrating piece because it exists as a space in which all of the pitfalls Hillary Clinton and women like her have put up with in the quest for equality in the United States and abroad. It is alarming that this same article could have been published today (albeit with a few minor tweaks) and it would be 100% relevant to the discourse surrounding the 2016 presidential election.