Sexism in Hillary Clinton coverage
It may have been the first time an audience heckler yelled “Iron my shirt!” at a United States senator (AP, 1/7/08), as well as the first time a presidential candidate has had a pair of nutcrackers fashioned in her likeness (New York Post, 9/7/07).
Sen. Hillary Clinton’s run for the Democratic nomination has been fraught with sexism, exposing an ugly streak within the American press. There were several repeat offenders—MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, the New York Times’ Bill Kristol—but degrading, misogynist and ageist attacks on Clinton spanned from print to radio, from the Web to television.
The level to which media were willing to stoop was signaled early on, when the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan (7/20/07) penned an article about—of all things—Clinton’s cleavage:
She was wearing a rose-colored blazer over a black top. The neckline sat low on her chest and had a subtle V-shape. The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.
Actually, it was quite deniable; from the C-SPAN screenshot that the Post provided, no amount of face-scrunching could turn her outfit into something that wouldn’t be utterly unremarkable in an office or in church. But Givhan proclaimed herself startled to see Clinton’s “small acknowledgment of sexuality and femininity”:
Predictably, Rush Limbaugh piled on the sexist bandwagon. After Matt Drudge posted a photo of a tired-looking Clinton (Drudge Report, 12/13/07) captioned “The Toll of a Campaign,” Limbaugh discussed the photo on his show, asking, “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”
Columnist Michelle Malkin chimed in on Fox News’ Big Story (12/17/07), saying, “If that’s the face of experience, I think it’s going to scare away a lot of those independent voters that are on the fence.”
Fox News kicked it up a notch by inviting Marc Rudov, author of Under the Clitoral Hood: How to Crank Her Engine Without Cash, Booze or Jumper Cables, on Your World (1/4/08) to discuss Clinton’s “nagging voice.” Host Neil Cavuto played clips of Clinton shouting over screaming crowds and asked whether “men won’t vote for Hillary Clinton because she reminds them of their nagging wives.” Rudov answered in the affirmative: “When Barack Obama speaks, men hear, ‘Take off for the future.’ And when Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage’”—this last delivered in a mocking high pitch.
Days later, Washington Post reporter Joel Achenbach wrote about that nagging voice on his Achenblog (1/6/08), writing that Clinton “needs a radio-controlled shock collar so that aides can zap her when she starts to get screechy. She came perilously close to going on a tirade.”
Clinton’s gender also seemed to justify submitting her emotions to a review uncommon for male candidates. When Clinton teared up on the campaign trail on January 8 in New Hampshire, the press pounced. In a New York Times article, Jodi Kantor (1/9/08) cast aspersions not on Clinton’s crying, but on the fact that a woman who “meted out her inner life one teaspoon at a time” proved that she had emotions at all. “It was not that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton teared up. It was all the times she did not,” Kantor explained. The theme of that piece was reminiscent of the Washington Post’s piece about Clinton’s cleavage—incredulous that Hillary could behave in a “feminine” way.
In an op-ed column headlined “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back Into the White House?,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd (1/9/08) blamed her tears on “Nixonian self-pity” from losing a popularity contest: “She became emotional because she feared that she had reached her political midnight, when she would suddenly revert to the school girl with geeky glasses and frizzy hair, smart but not the favorite.”
In fairness, Dowd also quoted Clinton speaking to the tabloid show Access Hollywood (1/6/08) about “the double standards that a woman running for president faces”: “If you get too emotional, that undercuts you,” Dowd quoted Clinton. “A man can cry; we know that. Lots of our leaders have cried. But a woman, it’s a different kind of dynamic.”
New York Times columnist Bill Kristol, while still at the National Journal, declared the tearing incident to be the sole cause of Clinton’s New Hampshire primary victory (Fox News, 1/9/08): “It’s the tears. She pretended to cry, the women felt sorry for her, and she won.”
After being hired as a New York Times columnist, Kristol appeared on Fox News Sunday (2/3/08) to say that the only people who support Clinton are “white women and the Democratic establishment.” He continued, “White women are a problem that’s, you know—we all live with that.” Fox News anchor Brit Hume demurred: “Bill, for the record, I like white women.”
Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball, is another major gender-baiter. Back in 2006, Matthews (11/7/06) described Clinton’s senatorial victory speech as a “barn-burner speech, which is harder to give for a woman. . . . It can grate on some men when they listen to it, fingernails on a blackboard. . . . How does she do it without screaming? How does she do it without becoming grating?” Matthews returned to this “fingernail on the blackboard” theme in subsequent shows (10/26/07, 10/30/07).
Matthews echoes Kristol’s theme that Clinton is pandering to women—seemingly by even mentioning the idea of sexism. “What about when she does this sort of awkward, I think, or highly rehearsed, ‘Us girls have to get together and circle the wagons against those men’?” he asked last year (10/18/07). “Is that attractive to women voters or not?”
On a show soon after (11/1/07), he accused Clinton of “playing the woman card.” Referring to a speech she gave at her undergraduate alma mater, an all-women’s college, as “rallying the troops up at Wellesley,” he asked, “Is she going to do a Seven Sisters tour now, a college tour now . . . to rally the women against the men?” The next day (11/2/07) he questioned: “Is Hillary out of line for painting herself as a victimized woman every time her male rivals criticize her? And do we want a president who plays the gender card every time her opponents attack her?”
MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson—who once said (Tucker, 7/16/07) that “when [Clinton] comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs”—might have hit a low point when he brought on Republican strategist Roger Stone (Tucker, 2/18/08) to talk about his anti-Hillary Clinton 527 organization, “Citizens United, Not Timid”—or C.U.N.T. Though it’s hard to top supposedly progressive radio host Randi Rhodes, who quit Air America after declaring at a March 22 network event that Clinton and former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro were “fucking whores.”
Jessica Wakeman has written for Bitch, Dame, the Huffington Post and the New York Daily News. She is a former FAIR intern.