Discussions about women in politics accelerated this past year at the height of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The media became saturated with articles about her historic run and opinion pieces on her strengths and weakness (though not necessarily in relation to her political position). As media consumers, scores of voters were exposed for the first time to the gendered rhetoric that follows women in politics. If we examine the trajectory of this discourse, we might begin to uncover the gaps in the rhetoric that alienated leagues of voters and led to Hillary Clinton’s unprecedented loss in the recent election.
In the wake of Hillary Clinton’s defeat to her opponent, the opportunity for introspection and reflection has never been greater for a nation stunned by its own decision. Questions like “how did this happen?” and “where did Clinton go wrong?” echo on the streets and online. How did a celebrity personality defeat the most qualified presidential nominee of all time?
How did the rhetoric about and by Clinton overshadow the atrocious rhetoric of her opponent’s campaign? What did we miss?
To begin with, women in politics deal with gender-specific criticism that does not address the actual political aspect of their careers, campaigns, positions, or policies (“It only took 168 years”, “Hillary Clinton as Archetype: Queen, Warrior, or American Pioneer?”, “Behind the Stare”, “Hating Hillary”, “A Deadpan Hillary Clinton Visits ‘Between Two Ferns’”). This sort of rhetoric prevents large-scale organization. In response to Karin Vasby Anderson’s piece, “Containment Rhetoric in American Politics,”, Pmurphy54 noted how the rhetoric about powerful women is “used to contain women to the traditional private sphere, protecting the male-dominated public sphere from their influence.” This traditional and private sphere positions women as the caregivers, the mothers, the wives. Essentially, women in politics are most successful when their successes are aligned with a male counterpart (“The Rise of the Rhetorical First Lady”).
As First Lady, first of Arkansas then of the United States, Hillary Clinton was positioned alongside her husband, consistently compared to her husband as she ascended the political ladder. Even in discussing her political ambitions (her Senate victory, for example), the conversation resituates her position as it relates to Bill; it is the hint at absurdity of what will become of Bill’s role as second to his wife:
Bill might find rewards in replicating his childhood—supporting the woman who defines and controls his existence (“What Hillary Wants”)
Hillary’s power is narrowed and confined to the power she wields over her husband’s life, not the political arena. Even in articles that showcase her career and policy contributions, her work is undermined by this gender-specific rhetoric.
In addition, the rhetoric that women face is often violent or constricting; and yet, the accepted rhetoric that they employ is quite the opposite. Consider the empowering and unifying slogan that Hillary Clinton ran her presidential campaign with: “Stronger Together” (“‘Stronger Together’: Clinton’s Rhetorical Appeal”, “Hillary Clinton: Conservative ideas or Conservative Rhetoric?”, “Michelle Obama: Beyond the Rhetorical First Lady”, “Authenticity, Competence, and Humor: The Triple Bind”, “The Testosterone Takeover”). To be successful and, quite frankly, to avoid predictable criticisms that plague women who speak up for themselves in the face of adversary — or, in this case, outright sexism (“Cable News Has a Sexism Problem”) — Hillary Clinton deployed a cautious rhetorical campaign. But her opponent’s rhetoric was anything but cautious; the vitriol he freely aimed in Hillary’s direction unearthed an alarming pattern of sexism that inundates women in politics.
Thus, it became clearer and clearer as the election wore on that perhaps the odds were never in Hillary Clinton’s favor. But still, the liberals and the pundits were convinced of her inevitable success. A close analysis of critiques of her campaign reveal how gender-specific rhetoric forces women into specific roles in the political sphere, regardless if they fit the bill or have even earned the right to speak on behalf of other groups (“Mama Hillary for Prez”, “Hillary Clinton’s Breakout Moment at Wellesley College”, “Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Hearing Coverage”, “From Spouses to Candidate: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Elizabeth Dole & the Gendered Office of U.S. President”, “November 8, 2016…Election Day or Mother’s Day?”, “Gender and Visual Rhetoric”, “How small are your hands…? No problem.”, “‘Were Those Bad Times for Women or What?’: The Practical Public Discourse of Mary Leite Fonseca, Massachusetts State Senate, 1953-1984”, “The 2008 Gendered Campaign and the Problem with ‘Hillary Studies’”).
In “A Rhetoric of Inclusion,” Stanton Batch explores the delicate balance successful political candidates must strike in order to appeal to a diverse populace:
Speaking for and about others [is] a rhetorical practice with potential to both oppress and liberate.
This is a tall order for a presidential candidate in a country that is so divided on issues of race, sex, religion, and gender (to name a few). And perhaps it is not the failing of the candidate, in this case Hillary Clinton, but of the voters’ projections of their ideal candidate. Pmurphy54 makes the important observation that “there is a perception that the leader of a country is an extension of the American individual.”
So how can a candidate, and more to the point, a female candidate reach a larger audience successfully? The sheer volume of opinion pieces and articles dedicated to Hillary Clinton’s attempts to become more appealing, more accessible, and more authentic is endless. Over the course of her political career, everything from her rhetoric to her jewelry has been meticulously altered and catered to an evolving American landscape (“Vote Chisholm 1972: Unbought and Unbossed”, “The Election that Changed Everything for American Women”, “Switching Genders, Switching Sides?”, “Women’s Rights are Humans Rights”, “The Gap”, “Clip from Miss Representation: Who Represents You?”, “Jewel Purpose”, “For Hillary in Arkansas, First Came Rejection. Then Came Rebranding.”, “Nobody’s Looking at You”). With each critique, she makes adjustments and prepares to absorb the next round of criticisms about her persona. Has a male political candidate ever had to be as attuned to such subjective preferences? I imagine, if at all, not to the same degree.
Professor Hayden aptly identifies the rhetorical strategies that served well in establishing Sarah Palin as an agreeable female counterpart to John McCain:
Her speech appeals to the value of patriotism, presents McCain as an American hero, thereby adding to her own ethos, and argues that McCain will be a better president than Obama due to his experience (“Sarah Palin 2008 Speech to RNC”).
In this sense, Mrs. Palin’s success is directly related to her positioning and uplifting of her male superior; that she is patriotic is coupled with her allegiance to McCain.
The same revelation is made when analyzing Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, noted aptly by Nonzamo:
The framing of Bill Clinton as the popular, patriarchal head of the Democratic Party ultimately functioned rhetorically as to marginalize Senator Clinton’s campaign and re-center the connection between hegemonic masculinity and the presidency.
In this sense, and in many other ways, it is in Mrs. Clinton’s desire to step outside of her husband’s shadow that discredits her.
We begin to see how the political rhetoric betrays our country’s internalized beliefs about women maintaining their traditional female role. Look no further than the rhetorical pattern that emerged in the endorsements that were for Hillary Clinton (“The Anti-Trump Endorsement”). The focus became her opponent’s ineptitudes rather than her successes.
Ultimately, the rhetoric that has followed Hillary Clinton throughout her political career, particularly during this past year’s election, is powerfully constricting. By narrowing Clinton’s place and influence in the political sphere, perhaps it was the media that perpetuated this image of Clinton as incomplete, unrepresentative of the female populace and unfit for office.
With all that said, does our own limited perspective on female votership blind us from the realities of the political future? Is it actually just as narrowing as the media’s more conservative perspective?
What is missing is a more fully-realized version of the unsatisfied voters who either showed up for Hillary’s opponent or not at all. Once we reconcile the reality that Hillary Clinton was not the candidate for all female voters, we can get to work on filling in the gaps. Who are these women and what do they need; how can we accommodate these female voices and views, Trump supporters and all, into our social and political spheres?