For her entire public life, Hillary Clinton has lived in a world whose rules and dynamics are dictated by men. Running for president is no different, except the stakes are that much higher. While Clinton has been engaged in a lifelong fight against gender discrimination, there has been one kind of situation where she has been able to use male sexism to her distinct advantage: televised debates.
Clinton, an experienced debater, has honed her skills over many, many years. Starting on her high school debate team, she then worked as a lawyer, ran for Senate, served as America’s highest-ranking diplomat, and been a presidential front-runner, twice. She has a grasp of policy few others possess. She is quick on her feet, and can throw a biting zinger. That she will be well-prepared is a given, almost something the public and press take for granted.
But while debates are usually the platform on which the candidates have a final, definitive opportunity to present themselves to the public before the election, what’s remembered about them is not so much the details of policy proposals but the explosive soundbites and gaffes—events that are amplified even more in today’s culture of viral content, internet memes and sick burns. For Hillary Clinton, many of these memorable moments have not actually been about what she did or said—but about how her male opponents approached her.
Her opponent Donald Trump has in the past called women “pigs,” and “dogs,” mocked their menstruation and called a mother who needed to pump her breast milk “disgusting.” His campaign advisors must be drilling into him the need to avoid such incendiary comments, but Clinton’s history shows that it’s extremely easy for men–men who often have far better track records with women than Trump–to fall into the trap of looking condescending, aggressive or sexist. And once they stumble, the advantage often goes to Clinton.
In 2000, when Clinton was running for senator from New York, she appeared on a debate stage with Republican Rick Lazio, in what would become a defining moment of his political career. Lazio, a congressman who was doing well in the polls, wanted Clinton to sign a pledge against soft money in politics. He interrupted Clinton, walked across the stage to her podium, and handed her the contract, invading her personal space. A tall man towering over a woman looked hostile and threatening to viewers. “When a woman is aggressively attacked, the audience is more sympathetic to the woman because of the stereotypes of appropriate male behavior toward women,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this case, gender stereotypes worked to Clinton’s advantage: her campaign spun Lazio’s behavior as bullying and inappropriate, and his support fell after the debate. Remarkably, he didn’t learn his lesson, and continued his bullying tactic in a debate more than a month later. He lost the election.
The way gender stereotypes play out also depends on Clinton’s own reaction. She has repeatedly proven that she can turn a gendered remark into an asset in the heat of the moment. “She’s navigated so many different gendered situations that she doesn’t have to sit back and say ‘What am I going to have to do if…,’ said Jamieson, pointing to an unforgettable moment in the battle between Clinton and Obama in 2008.
During a primary debate in New Hampshire, the moderator asked Clinton what she would say to the state’s voters who didn’t find her as likable as Barack Obama.
Clinton responded with quick wit. Smiling and garnering chuckles from audience, she said, “Well, that hurts my feelings. But I’ll try to go on.” As she spoke about Obama, saying: “He’s very likable, I agree with that,” Obama glanced at Clinton from under his brow and stepped on her response to interject, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
The future president, who had been thoughtful with his words to that point, and well-liked among women, responded in a way that contributed to one of his campaign’s few major setbacks. The question put to Clinton was one “you would never ask of a male candidate,” says Jamieson. But Clinton nailed her answer: “She reacted spontaneously, out of lived experience.”
Obama’s cheap, unnecessary move made him look patronizing, and sparked a backlash. Several days later, he went on to lose the New Hampshire primary in an upset for Clinton, who gained support among women.
The question of likability hounds Clinton—and many have called it a double standard. “Is Donald Trump warm? Is Donald Trump likable? I don’t think he’s likable or warm. I don’t think those are categories we ordinarily use for male candidates,” said Jamieson.
The situations where Clinton appears more “likable” are often moments when she is under attack by a man. They also arise on the rare occasions when she lets herself appear vulnerable. Her tearing up in New Hampshire in 2008, when asked about the trials of life on the campaign trail, played extremely well with voters.
A similar moment occurred in the 2000 debate with Lazio, when moderator Tim Russert asked whether she misled the public about her husband’s faithfulness. Visibly emotional, she replied: “Obviously, I didn’t mislead anyone. I didn’t know the truth. And there’s a great deal of pain associated with that.” Then she pivots to the attack, which CNN at the time called “classic Hillary: a dignified attempt to reveal what’s underneath the armor followed by a wave of her sword.” As a woman, Clinton has had to show her emotions, but she also has had to prove that they don’t detract from her competence.
Clinton has often been the only, and first, woman in the room: if any woman can navigate the so-called boys’ club of presidential politics, it’s her. But the boys’ club proves again and again that it does not know how to deal with Clinton. They too easily forget what her presence represents, particularly to women. This was apparent at a debate early in the 2008 primaries, when Clinton was on stage surrounded by a mass of male competition.
The candidates were asked to name something they did and something they did not like about the person next to them. The answers were a series of jokes; playful joshing between men. Obama said, for instance, of Bill Richardson that he “doesn’t like the White Sox.” When it was John Edwards’ turn to say something about Hillary Clinton, he decided to joke about her jacket: “I don’t know about that coat.” Edwards’ tone wasn’t mean, but he came off sounding sexist. (Obama leapt to her defense this time, also commenting on the jacket.) “Women resent the fact that their appearance is commented on and male appearance is not,” Jamieson said about voters’ response to such incidents.
Trump has had the opportunity to learn that lesson for himself. While he generally breezed through the primary debates during this election, there was one moment where he was uncharacteristically at a loss for words, and almost humiliated on stage. In an interview with Rolling Stone before the debate, Trump said of his opponent Carly Fiorina: “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” During the debate, moderator Jake Tapper asked Fiorina about Trump’s disparaging comments. She calmly and forcefully responded to Tapper: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”
When the camera cut to Trump, he was visibly flustered. After a couple of beats, he says: “I think she’s got a beautiful face and she’s a beautiful woman”—completely missing the point of the lesson that was just offered to him. “Those moves disadvantage the male dramatically,” Jamieson said. “Because women know that across time that’s been used to keep them out of the workforce, to deny them promotions: to fail to treat them like substantive professionals, and instead treat them as arm candy.”
While expectations for Clinton’s performance are glass-ceiling high, for Trump they are gilded-lobby low. Trump’s main challenge is to resist a bullying attack, which would appear heightened by the presence of a woman on stage.
Yet, if he launches such an offensive, his historically low support among women and unorthodox path to the nomination may be an inoculation against the kind of blowback that would normally fell a presidential candidate. After all, from the racist to the deceitful, none of his other unhinged statements have much dampened his support. If Trump does level a sexist attack at Clinton, it’s fair to wonder, who will end up more damaged in the aftermath: him, or her?