Welcome to womanhood: If you emote too much, you’re a weeping crazy lady. If you emote too little, you’re an ice cold b*tch.
No one seems to understand this feminine quandary more than potential POTUS Hillary Clinton. And on Thursday, she distilled the pressure women feel to constantly modulate their emotional states down to two anecdotes, recorded by Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton.
Clinton describes taking her law school admissions test at Harvard, in a group of nearly all men, many of whom viewed the few women in the room as an affront. She uses this experience as an entry point into the way women learn from a young age to adapt their emotional states to make those around them feel comfortable, and just how difficult it can be to toe the line between “emotional” and “closed off”:
I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena.
In a second piece of the same interview, posted on Facebook just hours later, Clinton expanded on this idea.
“I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation,” she told Stanton. “I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’”
Clinton has been consistently criticized over the years for being “angry,” “shrill,” “aloof,” “icy” and “ruthless.” She has spent decades hearing that she must adjust her tone of voice, her hair, her smile, her clothing and her level of emotiveness in order to appeal acceptable to the American public.
Part of this is, of course, just par for the course when you live your life in the public eye. And it’s not just gender that plays a role in the way people police and react to a public figure’s emotional openness or lack thereof.
But even given all of this, much of the criticism levied at Clinton, and at the very least, the way it is delivered, is unquestionably gendered. Just look at the “Trump That B*tch” and “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica” T-shirts that became so popular during the RNC. (The mental gymnastics those who hate her seem to go through to deny that gender plays a role in people’s perceptions of Clinton only serves to reinforce the point.)
Ultimately, when it comes to presentation ― emotional and physical ― there is a clear double standard. A male leader who raises his voice and speaks with his hands and shakes his head during a speech is passionate. A woman who does the same is angry and unhinged. The standard bearers for what “presidential” looks and sounds and acts like are all male. So anything Clinton does, even if she is emulating every successful presidential candidate before her, will play differently with the American people.
The reason this particular interview with Clinton rings so true to so many women is that even women who never go into political or public life of any kind learn to do a carefully choreographed emotional dance. (This is likely especially true for women who came of age when Clinton did. We may still have a long way to go when it comes to gender parity, but things have certainly changed since Clinton took her Harvard Law admissions exam.)
Women know that to receive respect in a professional setting means being articulate and assertive, but not aggressive or angry or b*tchy; warm and inviting, but not fake or emotional; passionate, but not threatening. Essentially you have to demand a seat at the table, while making those around you feel like they pulled that very seat up to the table for you.
This outward emotional modulation matters because it’s something all women must learn to navigate, and then keep up forever. And it feels damn satisfying to hear a presidential candidate articulate what that feels like.