Hillary Clinton and How We View Power-Seeking Women

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First Lady Hillary Clinton testifies on health-care reform in 1993.
Photo Credit: 
John Duricka / AP

Nearly six in ten registered voters have an unfavorable impression of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, making them the two most unpopular presidential candidates. While likely voters find each one equally unfavorable, their favorability does differ across certain key demographics. One of the more notable groups is white men. The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Hillary Clinton’s unfavorable rating is 13 points higher among men than among women. The number is even higher for white men. Up to 75% of white men see Clinton unfavorably, while 51% say the same about Trump. For white men without a college degree, 79% hold an unfavorable view for Clinton while 42% view Trump unfavorably. So why is it that men, especially white men, dislike Clinton so much?

Hillary Clinton is certainly like many other politicians. She has worked on behalf of others throughout her career as a lawyer, First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. Like most politicians, she has switched her positions, told lies, and been involved in political scandals. Yet the antipathy towards Clinton is truly unprecedented. Clinton critics do not just want her to lose the election; they want her locked up in prison. They want her hanged. They want her shot.

Academics, psychologists, and the like have been examining gender identity and gender roles for decades. Gender roles are the norms or expectations set by society which dictates the types of behavior considered as acceptable or appropriate for people based on their actual or perceived sex. Women are traditionally viewed as nurturing and should thus assume that role both inside and outside of the household. Men, on the other hand, are traditionally presumed to be leaders. So what happens when a female assumes a traditionally male role like for instance, President of the United States?

Precarious manhood theory hypothesizes that masculinity is a tenuous concept which must be earned and conferred socially. A man can be made to feel less manly by events that make him feel that he is not living up to the masculine ideals perpetuated in our culture. Throughout the world, men are continuously proving their manhood to society. In many pre-industrialized societies, manhood was and is earned via tests of strength, bravery, and endurance. In industrialized societies, gangs, fraternizes, and militaries often require men to prove themselves with initiation rituals.

If masculinity is a precarious and fragile concept, then men will feel compelled to demonstrate their manliness when their manhood is challenged. Scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that gender-threatening feedback arouses stronger feelings of anxiety or shame among men than it does among women. When a male participant felt their masculinity was being threatened, they exhibited more physically aggressive thoughts. Another study at the University of South Florida found that when men perceived that their gender identity was being threatened, they placed riskier bets and acted more recklessly in their private lives.

In 2010, researchers Victoria L. Brescoll and Tyler G. Okimoto asked participants to rate fictional political candidates and indicate which they would vote for. They found that power-seeking elicits backlash against female politicians. Participants found power-seeking female politicians to be unsupportive and uncaring, yet they saw power-seeking male politicians as having greater agency (being assertive and stronger) and greater competence. Some participants even expressed feelings of contempt and disgust toward women seeking power. Power-seeking beliefs also affected voter preferences. Participants were less inclined to vote for the female candidate if they were seen as political power-seekers.

No wonder women still remain underrepresented in United States politics. Women currently hold just 20% of the seats in Congress and 19.3% in the House of Representatives. Only 24.6% of state legislators are women and there are currently only six U.S female governors.

Pervasive manhood theory could help explain the aversive reaction many have to Hillary Clinton. Clinton is aggressive, straightforward, and determined – characteristics that do not fit within our view of how a traditional woman “should be.” When she is straightforward, she is seen as "shrill" and "hawkish." Yet when Donald Trump is for straightforward, he is celebrated for telling it “like it is.” Hillary Clinton does not disclose an illness and she is a compulsive liar. Donald Trump does not release his tax returns, and he is savvy and smart.

Pervasive manhood theory could also help explain the visceral hatred and venomous language aimed at Secretary Clinton. She has been called a “bitch” by conservative radio hosts such as Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh. One of Trump’s advisors recently referred to her as the c-word. At Trump campaign rallies, t-shirts are sold saying, "Hillary sucks, but not like Monica," "Trump that Bitch," and "KFC Hillary Special: 2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts .. left wing." Men who feel that Clinton is a threat to their manhood and women who are uncomfortable with Clinton assuming the roles and qualities that men "should" posses, unleash feelings of anxiety and shame through violent and sexist language

Hillary Clinton has never assumed the role of the “traditional woman.” Ever since she refused to bake cookies and host tea parties as the First Lady, she has been unapologetically different. So while she has been described as “cold” and “conniving” and “heartless,” maybe she is none of those things. Maybe we view her through our discomfort with how much she does not fit our archetype of how a woman should be. Rather than dismiss her strength and resolve, we should celebrate and applaud it.

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