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Why Must we Prove Women are Human?


There’s a peculiar trend surrounding this Presidential election season, and one that has plagued Hillary Clinton for much of her career. Why do we have such a hard time acknowledging women as human beings?

A passage in a recent New York Magazine article really brought it home for me:

In a recent column, [David Brooks posited]( that Clinton is disliked because she is a workaholic who “presents herself as a résumé and policy brief” and about whose interior life and extracurricular hobbies we know next to nothing. There’s [more than a little sexism]( at work in Brooks’s diagnosis: The ambitious woman who works hard has long been disparaged as insufficiently human. And the Democratic-leaning voters least likely to view Clinton favorably, according to a recent [Washington _Post_ poll](, skew young, white, and male. But those guys aren’t the only ones she’s having trouble reaching. And, no, it’s not really because we don’t know her hobbies (though if that is a burning question for you, read on).

Indeed, I do recommend reading the entire article. But I worry that it, and articles like it, almost help to create the very narrative they are trying to dispel. If we must have so many articles proving to us what a relatable, genuine human being Hillary Clinton is, doesn’t it reinforce the notion that there is something “off” and “untrustworthy” about her?

To be clear, I don’t think Clinton is generally dishonest–certainly no more so than American politicians typically are. By all accounts, in personal settings she is warm, friendly, and incredibly witty. On the public stage she is more cautious, measured, and scripted. One could use these adjectives to describe virtually any candidate, male or female. But we only take great pains to discuss it when it comes to Clinton, because there is this apparent undercurrent of distrust from many people.

Is “I don’t trust her” a dogwhistle for “she’s a woman”? People I would otherwise consider reasonable and intelligent point to Clinton’s trustworthiness–rather, her lack of it–as a reason not to support her. Sure, from the left you get attacks that she’s owned by Wall Street, she’s too hawkish, and she has supported destructive policies like welfare “reform” (actually destruction) and the incarceration epidemic. But these aren’t the reasons that most mainstream voters offer when asked why they don’t like her. Instead, it’s because she’s “power hungry,” because “she only is where she is because of her husband,” because “she lied about Benghazi,” or “she lied about her emails.” Most such attacks are very thin and unsubstantiated, with the exception of the email scandal, which has yet to produce a conclusive outcome.

But the “trust” issue and the myriad articles written to counteract that narrative make it clear to me that Clinton herself isn’t the problem. It’s a culture that’s uncomfortable with a woman seeking high office. A peculiar polling trend shows that Americans actually like Hillary Clinton quite a bit, but only when she’s not asking for a promotion. It’s as if we’re fine with her as long as she stays where she is, but the moment she starts agitating for a more powerful position, we begin to panic. Is a woman really ready for this job? Can a woman do the same things as a man? Are women even people? Sarcasm aside, it’s a frustrating phenomenon.

Articles that seek to illustrate Clinton’s humanity are, in my opinion, working at cross purposes. People who already believe she’s evil incarnate are not going to be swayed by a lovingly-written profile in a liberally-oriented magazine. From the other side, leftists who deride her hawkishness and chummy relationships with bankers aren’t going to change their minds just because it turns out she’s a nice person with hobbies. Who, then, are these articles meant to convince? I, personally, find them informative and illuminating, but they ultimately don’t influence whether I’ll vote for Clinton in the primary or the general election. I don’t especially care about her personality–what she does for fun is beyond trivial, and people who use that information to guide their voting decisions should probably stay out of polling places altogether.

If American politics are plagued by the personal, then women in politics get a double dose. A woman has to be career-minded (but not too much so) and also a wife and mother (but not too emotional about it, because that looks weak). She must be ambitious, but deferential. She must be pretty, but not so beautiful we question her intelligence–because a woman cannot be both attractive and smart, can she? She must be aggressive, because we so fear the outside world we demand leaders who will promise to nuke our real and imagined enemies at the slightest provocation. But aggression isn’t ladylike, so when it’s displayed we must also question her femininity and sexuality. Is she really a woman? Is she a lesbian?

At some point, we must stop asking whether Hillary Clinton is a genuine human being and start asking what’s wrong with us, because this is not an issue limited to one woman running for political office. It’s a problem women face both in this country and around the world, every day. Women must somehow earn their humanity, prove it to men and to the society around them. What men have by birth, women must fight for, and face the added challenge of having the parameters of that fight altered on a whim. When women want to play the game the way men do, they’re chastised for not acting like women. But to “act like women” really means to embrace stereotypes of subordination, dependency, and uncompensated emotional and physical labor. If women ask very nicely and wait patiently, maybe men will eventually give them what they want. Surely that will work, won’t it?

Hillary Clinton is part of a generation that recognized the futility of such an attitude. She has spent her career threading the needle, both working behind the scenes for powerful men who got all the credit, and moving to the forefront to build her own influence and use it to accomplish legal and political goals. One can certainly argue with those goals–I have numerous qualms with the qualities of her political platforms–but it’s counterfactual, even bizarre to suggest there is something uniquely untrustworthy or dangerous about her. Perhaps the only danger is that she might shatter the highest glass ceiling in the country, and no doubt there are people who do fear that.

But if we have to keep reminding each other that women are human beings, it’s not women who are the problem.

Photo by US Mission Geneva