By Dr Elizabeth Van Acker, School of Government and International Relations
Not unlike Julia Gillard – Australia’s first female Prime Minister – Hillary Clinton has faced gender mockery during the course of the US Presidential Election campaign.
She has been criticised for her voice, her laugh, her shrillness, her emotions and her clothes.
She has been accused of not having a presidential look. This is true, but the United States has never had a woman president before. Apart from Barack Obama, the presidential look has been middle-aged, white male concept.
The way she dresses is a case in point. She talks about what she calls “the sisterhood of her travelling pantsuit”. This is Hillary’s way of owning a uniform when she on stage in a debate, when she’s travelling from state to state, when she’s in front of the cameras.
She has to think about this in ways male candidates have never had to think during an election campaign. She needs to wear something that’s flattering, that inspires confidence but which also gives her a sense of power.
Gender dominates debates
At the same time, everything she wears is subject to analysis from strong or weak colours to sleeves and lines. She has to consider every detail whereas men just wear a suit.
Therefore, she has had to invent her own look and image as a presidential candidate while also dealing with challenging issues around her husband, the Clinton Foundation, her email controversy, her elitism, and the deal she has done with the banks.
In many ways gender became the primary issue of the three presidential debates, which was quite problematic for Clinton.
If she had gone in hard and aggressive with Trump, she would have been criticised for being overbearing or hysterical. If she was angry and screamed as Trump has done, the media would have portrayed her as a scolding mother as they did in 2008 after a debate with Obama during the contest for the Democratic nomination.
But if she had let Trump talk over the top of her, she would have looked submissive. If she rose above him, according to Michelle Obama’s ‘when they go low, you go higher’ mantra, she would appear weak.
Trump’s use of gender
Ironically, Trump has used gender much more than Clinton during the debates where he has asserted a real male-dominant role. He has loomed large, almost stalking her, coming across as bullying, blustering, domineering with an attitude of ‘When I’m president, I can do whatever I want’.
What has come through is the image of a stalking man who is an insecure bigot and a racist, and I suspect his gender card has backfired.
Clinton has been supportive and outspoken on policies around the gender-based pay gap, the need for paid family leave, raising the minimum wage, more affordable childcare and the Paycheck Fairness Act.
But when she talks about these things, she is accused of playing the gender card.
Clinton and feminism
She has managed to ramp up her appeal to women almost by default because of Trump’s sexism. His treatment of women has been her trump card, and allowed her to use her feminism without having to push it too far.
At the end of the day, however, I’m not convinced the United States is ready or willing to vote for a woman. The idea of a first woman president is now an aside with so much focus on Trump, on his sexism, on his outlandish and unpredictable comments.
Ultimately, Hillary Clinton is very fortunate because Trump has become his own worst enemy. If she was running against a more conventional Republican, she would now be in a lot of trouble at this point.