Skip to navigationSkip to content

Hillary Clinton’s all-American scarlet letter

Reuters/Scott Morgan
In the spotlight.
  • Marcie Bianco
By Marcie Bianco

Managing editor, the Clayman Institute at Stanford University

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There is something in the United States’s cultural imagination that has long prevented it from envisioning—and electing—a female leader. This observation is supported by a recent United Nation’s report that ranks the supposedly progressive United States 75th for the number of women in positions of political leadership. Currently, there are twenty-two countries led by a woman.

Perhaps Americans’ reluctance to elect a female leader—and their particular antipathy toward Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton—can be traced to the country’s puritanical origins. Other countries have a long tradition of recognizing and valuing women as leaders. Their myths include female gods and their histories are replete with female political icons, from Kali and Athena to Joan of Arc and Eva Perón.

But from the beginning female sanctity in the US has been imagined as sullied by politics. A woman’s moral purity demanded that she remain withdrawn from discourses about power. In fact, women who wielded any kind of authority were deemed dangerous. Remember that the women executed in the US in the 17th century for being “witches” are now believed to have largely been village elders, medicinal experts, doctors, and curious thinkers who questioned conventional wisdom.

From the beginning female sanctity in the US has been imagined as sullied by politics.

Societal disapproval of women in politics in America carried forward through the centuries. The men who fought against women’s suffrage suggested that “women couldn’t vote because of the ‘muck and mire’ of politics and they should stay pure, at home with their children,” Elizabeth Reis, professor at the Macaulay Honors College, tells Quartz. Suffragists cleverly inverted these stereotypes in their campaign materials, Reis notes. “What was so clever about those suffragists was how they used that rhetoric to their advantage, saying that women were used to cleaning, and so they would clean up politic,” Reis says.

Now America’s roots are showing. Puritanical ideologues on both the left and the right would love nothing more than to stitch another “P” onto every one of Clinton’s rainbow-hued blazers.

P for “politician,” that is.

A “dirty,” “evil,” politician. A “flip-flopper.” An “opportunist” who is “pathologically ambitious.” A “lesbian”—or at least a straight woman who “dresses like one.” She was even criticized for “acting like a masculine woman,” by New York Times critic Maureen Dowd, who for over two decades has been one of Hillary (and Bill) Clinton’s most vicious critics. (Media Matters reports that 75% of Dowd’s columns that mention or feature the female Clinton since 1993 have been negative.)

Even in 2016, there is little that America hates more than a “tainted,” experienced woman—especially a woman who believes her experience to be advantageous. Because Hillary is a woman with a past, the theory goes, she needs to atone. For example, that means she needs to take responsibility for her husband’s presidency and alleged sexual indiscretions.

In politics, the moral opposite of experienced is “pure.” And this is precisely the angle that Bernie Sanders’s campaign and supporters have taken this primary season. Susan Sarandon, for example, gave an interview with the Daily Mail proclaiming her allegiance to Sanders because he is “untainted.” Sanders has been painted as the pure ideologue, a political outsider who has been able to somehow transcend the political fray. In truth, he’s a longtime liberal senator who has served the Democratic party for decades. (Sanders has in the past registered as an Independent but caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate and is seeking the Democratic party nomination.)

Even in 2016, there is little that America hates more than a “tainted,” experienced woman.

Yet Sanders is special, his supporters claim. He is a “revolutionary” unsullied by special interests. In his “Two Visions” campaign ad, for example, he contends, “There are two Democratic visions for regulating Wall Street. One says it’s OK to take millions from big banks, and then tell them what to do.”

This narrative is an integral part of his campaign strategy. Unlike Clinton, he told Rolling Stone in the fall, “I am not running to fulfill some long-held ambition.” By connecting ambition and the desire for power—stitch on another “P” onto Clinton—Sanders is purposefully tapping into the cultural anxiety that has held women bosses back for decades.

While Clinton’s been criticized as “part of the establishment,” her willingness to make plans and get things done is a big reason organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign have endorsed her.

With years of political experience of working at a national and international level, Clinton has cultivated a pragmatism that’s evident in her detailed, nuanced policies. Unfortunately, pragmatism isn’t sexy. Clinton herself acknowledged this, citing late New York governor Mario Cuomo about “campaign[ing] in poetry,” while “govern[ing] in prose.”

But Clinton’s campaign doesn’t have much room for poetry. She knows she cannot make legislative promises that will be impossible to keep in a government controlled by Republicans. This pragmatism (yep, another “P”) is a sign of her lack of ideological purity. Some Americans hold that against her, even though historically ideological purity has been “the road to ruin of every political movement and every political party that has tried it,” as John Avignone notes in a piece for Salon.

Sanders is purposefully tapping into the cultural anxiety that has held women bosses back for decades.

Sanders’ male privilege, on the other hand, means that he can afford to position himself as an anti-establishment, ideological purist. “He gets away with proposing unrealistic policy ideas that have little chance of being passed even by Democrats in Congress, let alone Republicans,” Michael A. Cohen wrote in a recent piece for the Boston Globe, “and then gets praised for being authentic.”

Clinton’s pragmatism, in other words, is considered antithetical to radical change. But American democratic politics, where everyone is given a voice, is inherently antithetical to radical change as well; our political system has a tripartite system of checks and balances to prevent such radical change. Ironically, especially within the scope of the history of American politics, Clinton’s candidacy is fundamentally transgressive. As Jessica Valenti writes in the Guardian, “Only in a sexist society would women be told that caring about representation at the highest levels of government is wrong. Only in a sexist society would women believe it.”

The question this election season is whether Americans will allow themselves to imagine and support the reality of a female president. It’s true that Clinton makes mistakes. She has a past. And she appears to understand that, given the way America’s political system works, a president will inevitably be called upon to make compromises for the collective good.

We have to learn to see beyond the historical sexism that has framed our understanding of women in positions of power, and understand that Clinton is neither a witch nor a saint. She’s just a politician trying to do the right thing. Sure, she isn’t pure. Then again, no one is.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.