So, the first woman in history ever to win the nomination of a major political party for the presidency of the United States is so strong, smart, competent, resilient and experienced that they had to bring out the big dawg to “humanize” her. The very idea of having to “humanize” a woman of power plays to the worst possible gender stereotype, implying that a woman who has what it takes to be our leader is somehow genetically deficient. We can hardly be surprised, though surely disappointed, therefore, that rather than proclaiming the strong woman leader that she is, former President Bill Clinton chose to characterize his spouse as a “girl” — a word he used several times in his speech to the Democratic National Convention as he spoke about Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton. Eeeeek.
Listening to the well-known philandering husband dumbing down his wife so as to make her somehow more appealing to the general public was, for me, more infuriating than charming. Having devoted a substantial portion of my professional life to educating women to be proud of their potential and self-confident in their power, I found the spectacle of “humanizing” the woman of power to be utterly demeaning and a gross example of how sexism still rules our national consciousness. Being a powerful woman should never mean having to apologize for being powerful.
The popular canard that Hillary Clinton is somehow deficient in the warmth department is simply untrue, but that accusation is frequently used against women in leadership positions to undermine their professional effectiveness. I know this from personal experience. I have been in enough situations across the last four decades of professional life to know that a woman who speaks up even occasionally is “getting pretty aggressive there, young lady” while the men in the room opine loudly on just about everything whether they know what the heck they’re talking about, or not. A woman in leadership who shows more softness is written-off as ineffective; but let a woman push back and speak out, and my goodness, she is something that rhymes with….. yes, witch. Donald Trump can yell all kinds of mindless bombast and he’s hailed in many quarters as decisive. Hillary Clinton speaks some lines loudly and with conviction, and she’s criticized for letting her voice rise and sound shrill. Here’s Fox News Analyst Brit Hume denouncing Hillary’s tone:
Lefty media does it too. The Huffington Post ran this bone-chilling headline:
Is Arianna Huffington one of those women who secretly despises other strong women? Junior High Mean Girl Rules? “Boss” is not a positive word whatsoever, and when applied to women, just add the “Y” and you get one of those really ugly words often applied to women who know what they’re doing. Is HIllary bossy? Perhaps. So am I, and so are most leaders I know — male or female — it’s what we do. But when applied to a woman, the term is downright nasty.
I found it refreshingly candid that the woman who then-candidate Barack Obama termed “likeable enough” in 2008 was self-aware enough to say in her acceptance speech the other night, “I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me.” Hillary is not alone, not by a long shot. People still don’t know what to make of women in power positions, women who can jawbone with the best on wonky policy details, women who can recite the details of military strategy and arcane legal reasoning and even the mysteries of zone defense. Aren’t women supposed to be in the kitchen whipping up more snacks and drinks while the men talk serious stuff? Who’s gonna get more guacamole if the women start thinking that they can spend more time developing trade policy than perfecting their onion dip?
I could also resonate with what Hillary said about her devotion to the details: “The truth is, through all these years of public service, the “service” part has always come easier to me than the “public” part.” Many women leaders I know wind up spending significantly more time on the details than male counterparts (just have this discussion with women college presidents) because we often have been given less support with more complicated problems to solve. We are comfortable with our power and authority, to be sure, but we do what we do primarily because we really like to do the service part of the work, which is often in the weeds; the public part comes along with time.
The late John Gardner once wrote that the most important task of a leader is to keep hope alive (No Easy Victories). We live in a moment in which the struggle between the bright possibilities of hope and the darkest corners of fear and despair seem almost overwhelming on some days. We must sort out the options with clarity, intelligence and a keen understanding of what kind of leadership we must have for our nation and the world to move ahead from this unsettling period in history. To do that, we need to spend a lot less time on superficial considerations — whether the candidate’s voice is properly modulated, or whether she is wearing the right color, or (to be fair to the other side) whether his hair is real — and more time on what leadership qualities are essential to ensure that the next phase of our lives as Americans can be economically fruitful and socially peaceful.
We don’t need people talking about “that girl” they once knew. We must have our aspiring leaders, male and female, presented and examined in ways that are fair, that focus on facts and abilities, and that help us to choose what’s best for the future.