“Her wings are cut and then she is blamed for not knowing how to fly.”
– Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949
I watched my mother cry. These weren’t tears shed over a sad movie or from laughter gone too far. It was pain. “You don’t understand,” with a sudden force, she hurled her words at my father as he sat a bit deeper in the sofa, a bit aloof across the room. The television droned on unresponsively of the election of President Donald J. Trump. Then my mother apologized and apologized again.
There is something singularly wrenching about seeing the woman — the one who gave you life, then held your hand firm through the storms — tear up uncontrollably. My mother’s wave of emotion wasn’t over a death. And she didn’t cry from physical pain. It wasn’t over Trump’s election. She cried for the defeat of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her tears were even a surprise to my mom. Hillary, it turned out, was a woman she had grown to identify with. Clinton had become a symbol for women like my mother. She was a successful woman without the easiest life who, despite the media’s chorus of horribles, despite Trump’s slings, his snickering over how corrupt and unlikeable Clinton was, my mom had grown not just to respect but to like.
The outrage over the unfolding history of Trump’s sexual misogyny blotted out coverage of the larger phenomenon. The question of large-scale sexual discrimination by both men and women was never more than a talking point during the 2016 presidential elections. And when it became a story, it was the story of Trump’s sexist misdeeds. It was not the electorate’s, even as reports surfaced that painted a disturbing picture. Take for example, USA Today’s November 10th account, published after the election, that sketched the scene “on the streets of cities from Phoenix to the Rust Belt, with protesters waving signs displaying the obscene c-word and chanting ‘lock her up.’”
That was four months ago. And we are still left to ponder what happened. A phenomenon has been posed known as the Jill Robinson Effect, first identified in a 2011 study published in the American Journal of Political Science, advanced by professors from Stanford University and the University of Chicago. The theory is named after the Jackie Robinson, who as the first African American to play in Major League Baseball had to perform better and compete harder than his white teammates in order to secure his roster spot. The Jill version suggests that professional women carry a gendered version of Jackie’s burden. Scholars found that “roughly 9% [or $49 million] more federal spending is brought home when there is a woman representing a district in Congress than when the same district is represented by a man.” In addition, on average, female Congressmen sponsor about three more bills per congress in a body that averages 18 bills per member.
If we take for granted (and data has supported this,) that women are no more politically talented than men in general, the authors explained these discrepancies through the Jill Robinson Effect. Women perform better on average because “only the most talented, hardest working female candidates” can overcome a gendered bias to be elected. Like Jackie Robinson, they have a higher bar to reach to stay on the team, a “higher performance threshold.” Thus, once in office these more qualified female candidates outperform their male counterparts. At the same time, the authors concluded that because women have been found more regularly to underestimate their abilities and suitabilities for political careers, “only the most qualified, politically ambitious females” are (self-) selected to run for office. Furthermore, female politicians were found to attract more opponents in primary and general re-election than their male counterparts, again suggesting a lower estimation of female political talents.
Women in the U.S. Senate, 2015, politico.com
What is more, a 2008 Pew survey found that 21% of Americans openly assert that men “make better leaders” than women. A 2007 Gallup poll observed that 11% of Americans refused to vote for a female candidate for president regardless of qualification, another 11% would only do so only “with reservations.” The sex bias did not cease with electoral victory. In 2012 National Journal found that while “more women than men [were] working on the Hill[,]…men were more likely to work in committee and leadership offices.” As Senator Amy Klobuchar described how she learned to gain respect for her ideas in a biased Washington, “I like to say that women politicians speak softly and carry a big statistic.”
Late in the 2016 presidential race, the Washington Post did publish an article arguing that “sexism dr[ove] support for Donald Trump.” Even back in June, even before the Access Hollywood “groping” tape surfaced, the Post found that “sexism was strongly and significantly correlated with support for Trump.” Not just outrageous, but cruel, sexist swag appeared at Trump rallies. Buttons read, “KFC HILLARY SPECIAL: 2 FAT THIGHS, 2 SMALL BREASTS…LEFT WING” and “LIFE’S A BITCH[,] DON’T VOTE FOR ONE.” T-shirts declaimed “HILLARY SUCKS[,] BUT NOT LIKE MONICA.” Bumper-stickers proclaimed “TRUMP THAT BITCH.” And yet to explain their loss, instead of sexism, Democrats across the board have been quicker to turn to a pair of Jameses, blaming James Comey’s dalliance on the public stage or the Clinton campaign’s straying from James Carville’s wisdom that “it’s the economy, stupid.”
Historians have found evidence of feminist movements dating back to the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Questions of women’s rights to equality in marriage, school and work boiled over in the French Revolution, codified in the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the of the Female Citizen.” In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the British Mary Wollstonecraft wrote what is generally considered the first feminist treatise in 1792. But it was not until the later 19th and early 20th centuries that what we call “first-wave feminism” swept through.
This “first-wave,” like nearly all of the movements before it, fought for legal rights or equality under the law for women. Campaigning within the system for issues like suffrage, they were almost all “reformers rather than radicals.” Where future feminists challenged notions and constraints of motherhood, this “first wave” looked to protect mothers, appealing for the legalization of abortion, maternal insurance and the rights of illegitimate children.
In the 1960s and 1970s feminism reemerged in a forceful “second-wave.” Having achieved many of their legal rights, feminists turned to unshackling women from gender stereotypes and roles, especially their fixed place in the home. At the same time, this generation of feminists looked to uncover the shame and pangs of inferiority felt by their sex for centuries. “The problem lay buried,” Betty Friedan wrote in 1963:
As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”
Women looked to emancipate femininity as more than just a foil to the masculine. They did not want to be men. Gloria Steinem yelled “women’s liberation!” and professed herself a “radical” in a “feminist revolt.” These “second-wave” feminists aimed to reveal the power in womanhood. A woman could do anything a man could, they rallied, teaching their daughters to seek knowledge and pleasure. “Anatomy is not destiny,” Steinem wrote in Time magazine.
Since the 1990s “third-wave” feminism or post-feminism and queer theory have challenged their predecessors for their focus on white, mainly middle-class women. Where “second-wave” adherents celebrated womanhood, the next generation has challenged such binaries as male/female as illusive constructions. Instead, post-feminists forward a “fluid notion of gender.” Queer and transgender identities have become central subjects for equal rights campaigns. So too have women of color.
Other contemporary feminists have fought not to replace but extend the “second wave” of feminism. Responding to a backlash that characterized feminism as “man-hate and hairy underarms,” this more moderate wing of the feminist party tailored its message to the reform not the radical wing of their cause. While rich motherhood was idealized, poor motherhood was shamed, they charged. In The Mommy Myth in 2004, Susan Douglas wrote that,
At the same time that middle- and upper-middle-class mothers were urged to pipe Mozart into their wombs when they’re pregnant so their kids would come out perfectly tuned, the government told poor mothers to get the hell out of the house and get to work — no more children’s aid for them.
Just so, Jenna Goudreau wrote of a big tent of inclusion and equality in Forbes in 2011, polling feminists old and young, famous and unknown. Goudreau found that this generation had concocted a new collection of terms to describe their feminist revolt: “womanist, girrl, mujerista, women’s liberationist, anti-oppression activist.” And yet, the problems persisted: women were responsible for bringing “home the bacon — and the eggs — cook[ing] them up and then lectur[ing] on the importance of portion size.” Women trying to raise children, women trying to climb the career ladder, women trying to do both, they all struggled.
It was in the radical and heady days of “second-wave” feminism that women like Clinton and my mother grew up. They looked askance at the previous generations of Mamie Eisenhowers and Jackie Kennedys as “some little wom[e]n, standing by [their] man like Tammy Wynette” sang, Clinton infamously argued on Sixty Minutes during her husband’s 1992 campaign. She didn’t want to “stay home…bak[ing] cookies and hav[ing] tea,” Clinton quipped weeks later to reporters.
It was her first appearance on the national stage as a tried-and-true feminist. Unreported went Clinton’s conclusions that “the work that I have done as a professional, a public advocate, has been aimed . . . to assure that women can make the choices whether it’s full-time career, full-time motherhood, or some combination.”
Paul Begala, a chief strategist for the campaign, recalled that “as soon as I heard” Clinton’s Sixty Minutes interview, he thought, “people are going to think that’s an attack on stay-at-home moms.” He was right. The Clinton campaign offices were “inundated” with outraged phone calls from housewives and women who had taken years off their careers to raise their children. William Safire called it Bill’s “Hillary problem.” Voters bristled over the idea of too strong a First Lady, what they called a “co-presidency.” It was a sharp rebuke and lesson.
Clinton laid low from the campaign for a few weeks and then, as Politico relates, she paraded out a softer, more traditionally feminine role. “She got her hair styled. She took off her unfussy professional woman headband.” She was stripped of her feminist roots in service of her husband. She competed in a “cookie bake-off” put on by the magazine Family Circle. She submitted to a “puff piece” with People magazine about being a mother, what movies she and Bill allowed their then-12-year-old daughter Chelsea to watch, what they told her about all the “news” about daddy. It was a article centered on Hillary’s personal life and Methodist religion. Professional Hillary had been put in the closet.
That was 24 years ago. And the new professional, no-nonsense 2016 Hillary stood as a rebuke to the “feminizing” that she was subjected to in service of her husband’s presidential ambitions. After three decades of scandals and press scrutiny, she is, as the New York Times described, far more “private and guarded by nature.” It is often said that her friends yearn to reveal to the public the warm “Hillary they knew.” Instead, she made herself impenetrable, neutered. “I’m a fighter” and “stronger together,” became her campaign’s organizing (and defensive) themes.
There were moments of embracing her womanhood: at her nomination speech in Philadelphia, she exclaimed that “when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.” She posted on her website a lengthy “briefing”on her life-long career of fighting for women and girls. Vanity Fair described how Clinton at times “leaned” into the historic nature of her campaign. She had her moment with Beyoncé. Last June, Senator Elizabeth Warren memorably shouted “I’m here ’cause I’m with her!” to a Cincinnati crowd. Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama embraced on a North Carolina stage last October. Senator Klobuchar beamed over seeing two strong women on the dais: “in the past, you thought you’d have to balance it[,]…need a man up there on stage…[He] would give you [an] air of authority. You were acceptable because you brought in a man.” As Alex Wagner wrote in The Atlantic, “these pairs of women on stage combatted stereotypes,” challenging “the notion that women are constantly in competition with one another.”
But so outrageous, Trump’s sexist lifestyle and mouth overshadowed other campaign topics. It was Trump’s misogyny and not a question of a lingering American misogyny or the continuing need to empower women and girls that took center stage. Clinton’s final television commercials focused not on her strengths or her journey but on her opponent’s unsuitability for higher office. On sexist terms alone, here was a man in Trump who had surely disqualified himself for the presidency of the United States. But even as Trump’s record of unwanted sexual advances grew by the week, he denied it all. He swung back, calling Clinton an “enabler” of Bill’s “abuse of women.” He arrived at the second presidential debate with Bill’s sexual assault accusers in hand. And even as “grab them by the p — y” became the quotation of the contest, Trump downplayed his lewd oral history as “locker room banter.”
It seemed midway through the campaign that women had joined together to support Clinton. If not to support the first woman president, at least to stop Trump. Yet the coalition would not hold. In June Nate Silver in his FiveThirtyEight blog found a “massive gender gap” with women favoring Clinton by 33 points. Silver compared the discrepancy to “Eisenhower’s landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson in 1952.” In July USA Today’s Susan Page reported a “yawning 24” point gender gap. Despite the 9-point slide from Silver’s poll just a month before, Page cheered the numbers as proof that “sisterhood is powerful.” In the end, women voted for Clinton over Trump by 54% to 42%. It was a 12-point slide from July. Pew reported that, dating back to 1972, such a gendered preference was “not dramatically higher than in some other recent elections, including the 2000 contest between [George W.] Bush and Al Gore.”
There is a sadness to this story. Here is a woman who fought her whole life for the rights of women, loud and proud, to lead any life they wished. In college, Hillary Rodham once debatedwith herself whether she was more “pseudo-hippie” or “educational and social reformer.” Now, in 2016, she felt compelled to prove that she could be as “strong” as a man, to create for herself the image of a serious, experienced but largely sexless candidate. The international Women’s March, the biggest grassroots effort since Vietnam, came two months too late. For Hillary was the last reasonably qualified hope for the far future for a woman to be elected President of the United States.
“It is shameful! This country won’t elect a woman president,” said my mother. I didn’t exactly agree. Trump was a far stronger candidate than he had been given credit. He exploited the popular antibodies that had built up for years against Obama and the re-election of those in his party. Trump rode an international populist wave. And Clinton had won the popular vote. Yet, as my mother argued, sexism exploded to the fore in the 2016 presidential election. And not just from Trump. Despite the fixed focus on his indiscretions by Clinton’s campaign and the media, the sexism came forth from the masses. It was easy to detect in the die-hards chanting “trump that bitch.” It will take much finer-tooth research to uncover the number of voters with subtler sexist proclivities, many unconscious of their Jill Robinson bias, unaware of their uncomfortability with a female president.