America loves women like Hillary Clinton–as long as they’re not asking for a promotion

Back in the good old days.
Back in the good old days.
Image: AP Photo/Kevin Lamarque
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It’s hard to remember these days, but just a few years ago, everybody loved Hillary Rodham Clinton. When she stepped down as US secretary of state in January 2013 after four years in office, her approval rating stood at what the Wall Street Journal described as an “eye-popping” 69%. That made her not only the most popular politician in the country, but the second-most popular secretary of state since 1948.

The 2012 “Texts from Hillary” meme, which featured a sunglasses-clad Clinton scrolling through her Blackberry aboard a military flight to Libya, had given rise to a flood of think pieces hailing her “badass cool.” The Washington Post wanted president Barack Obama to give vice president Joe Biden the boot and replace him with Clinton. Taking stock of Clinton’s approval ratings, Nate Silver noted in a 2012 piece for the New York Times that she currently held “remarkably high numbers for a politician in an era when many public officials are distrusted or disliked.”

How times have changed. “The FBI And 67 Percent of Americans Distrust Hillary Clinton,” booms a recent headline in the Huffington Post. Clinton’s favorability ratings currently hover around 40.8%. Bob Woodward complains that “there is something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating.” “Hillary’s personality repels me,” Walker Bragman writes in Salon.

How can we reconcile the “unlikable” Democratic presidential candidate of today with the adored politician of recent history? It’s simple: Public opinion of Clinton has followed a fixed pattern throughout her career. Her public approval plummets whenever she applies for a new position. Then it soars when she gets the job. The wild difference between the way we talk about Clinton when she campaigns and the way we talk about her when she’s in office can’t be explained as ordinary political mud-slinging. Rather, the predictable swings of public opinion reveal Americans’ continued prejudice against women caught in the act of asking for power.

We beg Clinton to run, and then accuse her of feeling “entitled” to win. Several feminist writers have analyzed the Clinton yo-yo. Melissa McEwan sees a deliberate pattern of humiliation, which involves “building [Clinton] up and pressuring her to take on increasingly prominent public challenges, only to immediately turn on her and unleash breathtaking misogyny against her when she steps up to the plate.”

If you find this hypothesis unlikely, there’s Ann Friedman’s explanation: Clinton makes people uncomfortable by succeeding too visibly. Clinton is trapped in “the catch-22 of female ambition,” Friedman writes: “To succeed, she needs to be liked, but to be liked, she needs to temper her success.”

Yet it seems odd that even when Clinton ascends to ever-greater positions of power—from first lady to senator, from senator to secretary of state—we start liking her again once she’s landed the job. It’s not her success that seems to arouse ire, but the act of campaigning itself.

This issue is not specific to Clinton. As Slate writer Jamelle Bouie has pointed out on Twitter, even progressive demigod Elizabeth Warren was seen as “unlikable” when she ran for the Massachusetts senate seat. Local outlets published op-eds about how women were being “turned off” by Warren’s “know-it-all style”—a framing that’s indistinguishable from 2016 Clinton coverage. “I’m asking her to be more authentic,” a Democratic analyst for Boston radio station WBUR said of Warren. “I want her to just sound like a human being, not read the script that makes her sound like some angry, hectoring school marm.”

Once Warren made it to the Senate, she was lionized—right down to a Clinton-esque moment in which supporters begged her to run for President. Yet seeing Warren engaged in the actual act of running seems to freak people out.

Campaigning is not succeeding. It’s asking for success, and for power. To campaign is to publicly claim that you are better than the others (usually white men) who want the same job, and that a whole lot of people should work to place you in a more powerful position. In other words, campaigning is a transgressive act for women.

Women often find self-promotion difficult even outside the realm of politics. For example, a 2011 study found that men are four times more likely to ask for raises than their female co-workers. Women are much more likely than men to under-estimate their abilities. When they apply for jobs, they often refuse to even submit a resume unless they’re certain they have 100% of the requisite qualifications. (The qualification threshold for men is only 60%. Think about that the next time you wonder why on Earth Donald Trump thinks he should be president–or, for that matter, when Bernie Sanders insists that his lack of foreign policy experience compared to Clinton’s doesn’t matter, because he has better “judgment.”)

Articles on women’s workplace behavior are littered with tales of the “confidence gap” and “impostor syndrome”–that is, the recurring belief among high-achieving women that all of their achievements have been somehow accidental and are therefore undeserved. But the rare, lucky women who do manage to apply for higher-level jobs, advocate for fair wages, and feel good about themselves in the meantime may find that the “confidence gap” is less personal neurosis than sadly justified risk assessment. Women who put themselves forward in the same assertive, confident style as men are routinely found pushy, “bitchy,” or unlikable, and professionally penalized for that, too.

In politics, the pattern is no different. The so-called “ambition gap” begins in college. In both 2001 and 2011, women were 16 percentage points less likely than men to say they had thought about running for office, according to a study of nearly 4,000 Americans published in 2012 by the Women & Politics Institute. Women consider themselves less qualified for politics (again, men with the exact same qualifications as those women describe themselves as “very qualified” for the same positions), less interested in high-level positions and less likely to run for them.

When women do overcome the ambition gap, we punish them for it. One Harvard study found that “when participants saw female politicians as power-seeking, they also saw them as having less communality (i.e., being unsupportive and uncaring), while this was not true for their perceptions of power-seeking male politicians.” Power-seeking men were seen as strong and competent. Power-seeking women were greeted by both sexes with “moral outrage.”

Thus, the single worst thing a female politician can do to herself is to look for a job in politics. We can accept women in power, but not women’s desire for more of it.

Would a victory in the primaries or general election cool down public anger toward Clinton—or increase it to record levels? As Friedman pointed out to me in conversation, there’s no way to know: “When you get to the level Hillary is at now … there’s no data. It’s just her.” As the only woman to ever be a leading contender for president, Clinton is the only case study we have about how gender impacts frontrunners. This gives us an incomplete picture, as Friedman notes, because it erases any complexity that arises from Clinton’s status as an individual, and imperfect, politician.

Personally, I think that we’ll start liking Clinton again sooner rather than later. After all, she can’t keep campaigning forever. If she loses the Democratic primaries or the general election, she’ll have run out of rungs to climb. The loss would let us forgive her. And if she makes it to the top, she’ll have reached a vantage point that she—and we—have never seen before. Up there, everything may look new.