The other day, I read a wonderful article in the Washington Post, about how female debaters are often held to different standards from male debaters. The article is here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/09/23/how-could-sexism-hurt-clinton-in-the-debates-these-female-high-school-debaters-know/?hpid=hp_no-name_opinion-card-f%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.1cf6b04d1616.
Written by Anna Waters, a junior at Northwestern University, it describes in great detail how female debaters, even at the high school and college level, find their performance judged more on their physical appearance and their personality than their male opponents are. Since "power" and "authority" in our culture have long been gendered male, a woman who tries to sound powerful or authoritative is often harshly criticized, whereas a man who exhibits those qualities is praised. You've heard the memes-- he's assertive; she's aggressive. He's determined; she's stubborn. He's decisive; she's bossy. And let's not forget ambition-- a man is complimented for being ambitious, whereas a woman who displays ambition is compared to Lady Macbeth.
So, can a woman be "presidential"? After Hillary Clinton participated in a recent event called the "Commander in Chief Forum," Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus commented that she seemed angry and didn't smile enough. One wonders why any candidate would be expected to be cheerful when discussing matters of war and peace, but evidently Mr. Priebus believes a woman candidate needs to first and foremost make sure she doesn't lose her feminine charm and likeability.
But sad to say, his attitude is still too common-- there have been a number of studies in the business world that have found significant gender disparities: for example, when male managers speak in a way that sounds angry or critical, there's a tendency to either accept it or to rationalize it ("That's just how he is; but he's a really good boss once you get to know him"); but when a woman manager speaks that way, there is a far more negative response, and in some cases, it fuels the perception that she is not an effective manager because she doesn't have good people-skills. This can even lead to a pay gap: women who sound harsh are paid less than men who sound exactly the same way. http://time.com/money/3986479/angry-women-lose-15k-perceived-worth/
Don't get me wrong. Compared to how things were when I was growing up, a time when companies could come right out and say "we don't hire women," and when even the most qualified women were denied equal access to the best-paying jobs, we have made amazing progress. But as I have noted in other blog posts, some things have not changed much at all, including public reaction to strong female politicians. This is not partisan, by the way. Both Republican and Democratic women have been asked questions male politicians would never be asked, including questions about who takes care of their children and what their husband thinks of their political career. And as for First Ladies, woe to the woman who had a career before entering the White House: she is still expected to give it up and spend her time hosting lavish parties (at which time she will be criticized for being ostentatious) or promoting a charitable cause (and if she uses late-night talk shows or social media to promote it, she will be accused of trying to be too much of a celebrity). We still seem to expect First Ladies to "know their place," even if they had high-powered and successful professional lives before.
I don't know whether Hillary Clinton will be able to win a debate with a master showman and entertainer like Donald Trump. I'd like to believe she can, because she knows a lot about policy and has very detailed plans. But based on previous coverage of her, I expect critics to find her "shrill" and to criticize her "lack of warmth." I've never met her so I have no idea whether she is or is not a warm person, but I do know that ever since women entered politics after they got the vote, female candidates have had to walk a fine line between sounding certain but not dogmatic; being prepared but not sounding like a school-teacher giving a lecture; and being forceful without seeming angry. I hope Hillary can keep her balance, but it won't be easy. It would be nice to say that we've moved beyond gendered assumptions about female candidates, but unfortunately, evidence suggests we haven't. So, it will be interesting to see what Hillary's strategy is for winning the debates-- knowing before she goes in that historically, the rules have favored a male style of debating. My hope is that that these upcoming debates won't be about "manliness" versus "warmth." In 2016, we shouldn't still be judging based on 1950s assumptions-- and yet, I fear that we will.