The Plank

Hillary, Feminism, And Manly Presidents

In her dialogue about Hillary Clinton and feminism, Michelle makes an interesting point: 

"I've come across so many studies where they've done a series of blind comparisons saying "these characteristics belong to candidate X, and he's a man, and the same characteristics belong to candidate Y, and she's a woman," and in case after case you do find a bias against women as leaders. I think this is particularly difficult when you're talking about the presidency because people vote for such inchoate "I want to have a beer with him" reasons. Even more so than when they vote for senator or congressman, they're not voting on policy issues. They say they are, but they're not. They're voting on those weird intangibles about who has good character and leadership ability, and time after time, there's a bias in favor of men, and it's really hard to overcome that."

I think this is the crucial way female candidates, especially female presidential candidates, have a double standard working against them. Ironically, I think Hillary Clinton's campaign has worsened this problem. Hers has been the campaign constantly defining the job of president as "commander-in-chief" -- a more militaristic conception of the role. While Barack Obama has tried to reframe who is more qualified to conduct foreign policy as a question of judgment, Clinton has insisted that it's a question of toughness. That's a metric where she's arguably superior to Obama, but John McCain is clearly superior to her. (And, for that matter, Genghis Khan would be superior to McCain. It's a dumb metric.)

On other intangible ways to think about presidents, Clinton's campaign has defined the proper role of president in ways that are more conducive to male candidates. Men are usually going to appear more "authentic" than women shooting guns or knocking back shots in a bar. Clinton advisor James Carville declared at one point, "If she gave him one of her cojones, they'd both have two." This way of defining the proper character and style of a president may have been helpful to Hillary Clinton's efforts to beat Obama, but they're harmful to female candidate in general. To the extent that presidential qualities are defined as "manly," women have a harder time competing. Obama is trying to move the frame of debate away from the manly-tough guy stuff, but Hillary keeps dragging it back down.

--Jonathan Chait

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