Kudos to Hillary for Playing the Woman Card
Hillary Clinton ascended the stage on Thursday night in Philadelphia, having to face down the nuttiest political season in my lifetime and quite possibly in hers. Her opponent is a madman. Russian spies are trying to dupe her left-leaning critics into thinking she’s conspiring against them. For a couple days there, it looked like her primary opponent’s supporters were going to prioritize their hurt feelings over preserving the progressive movement.
On top of that, she is facing a wall of resistance that’s so sexist that it probably stuns even her. Oh, Clinton haters, both on the left and right, never admit it’s about gender, but the fact that she draws so much more hate than male Democrats who have the exact same political views as her belies that claim. The claims that her haters make about her—that she’s mendacious, manipulative, bossy, and shrill—bear no relationship to the woman herself, but sure do sound exactly like the same things people have always said about women who seek power and independence, since the days such women were burned as witches.
Hell, Ben Carson even fiddled with the idea that Clinton consorts with the devil.
Clinton is no Barack Obama, who is one of the greatest political orators of all time. As Matt Yglesias at Vox argues, the very skills that make her a good leader—coalition-building, focusing on the details, humility—lead to saggy, overstuffed speeches that say a lot but hardly get the soul soaring. I worried she would do that this time around, try to overwhelm the crowd with policy chatter in an effort to get people to believe she is competent.
But most people already believe that about Clinton. No, what she really needed to do in this speech was find a way to turn her gender from a liability to an asset, to get people to stop associating “woman president” with all their witchiest fears of women with power and instead associate her with another female stereotype, of the humble but hard-working team player. To revive her “bitches get shit done” image that she had as Secretary of State and that made people like her so much.
And that is exactly—and I mean exactly—what Clinton did.
Donald Trump gave Clinton a huge gift with his ridiculous “I alone” line from his convention speech last week. It allowed her to portray herself as the opposite: A team player, a listener, a coalition-builder, and humble public servant. She literally said of being a public servant that “the service part has always come easier to me than the public part.”
“None of us can do it alone. That’s why we are stronger together,” Clinton added. It was a masterful stroke. By framing the presidency in terms of service and community, Clinton both contrasted her vision with Trump’s narcissistic one and fought back against stereotypes that hold that ambitious women are heartless shrews who don’t care about anyone else.
It’s the theme that the Democrats have been working all convention: That Clinton is that smart, efficient lady in your office who makes sure everything is running smoothly and never gets the credit she deserves for it.
It turned Clinton’s biggest electoral liability—her gender—and turned it into an asset. As Sady Doyle and others have pointed out, Clinton’s approval ratings go up when she’s working but plunge when she is campaigning, showing that her notoriously high disapproval ratings are about hostility towards female ambition and not about her.
“So it’s true, I sweat the details,” Clinton joked. She may be a witch, but she’s Hermione Granger, not the Evil Queen.
Having Chelsea Clinton introduce her mother was risky. It emphasizes Clinton’s gender—a lot of people still have trouble reconciling the roles of “mother” and “powerful person who does an important and time-consuming job.”
But I think it worked, and not just on the already-voting-Clinton feminists who think that women should be able to work and be mothers at the same time. Chelsea’s speech was warm and believable and full of great stories, unlike the speeches given by Trump’s family at his convention.
By portraying her as a caring mother, they were able to connect her public work—especially in health care, women’s rights, and children’s rights—to an image of her as a woman who strives not because she has that oh-so-scary ambition, but because she’s a doer. We are all aware, on some level, that it’s anonymous but hard-working women that make the world run, who do all the thankless and unglamorous organizing, cleaning, planning and detail-sweating that the big important men of the world count on so they can be big important men.
Clinton’s pitch was, “Why not let one of those behind the scenes women that do all the work anyway have the job for once?”
There were a few holdouts who booed Clinton. Of course, there was. Women can’t walk down the street without being harassed, so you for sure can’t run for president without some jackass heckling you. But overall, the mood on Twitter and in the room was enthusiastic, jubilant even.
Polls will show next week, but just being at this convention all week, I have to say I think the Democrats and Clinton herself did a magnificent job of convincing the country that they really do think it’s time the country is run by the nerdy girl with the frizzy that you know damn well studied harder than anyone for that test.