Hillary Clinton knows how to handle boy bullies and all the sexist mess they bring to the table.
So expect her to keep her chill on Monday night, when she faces off with Donald Trump, the most blatant misogynist to ever grace the presidential debate stage.
The gender dynamics going into this first widely anticipated debate are so loaded and unsubtle, it’s almost comical. But, essentially, Clinton’s been prepping for this moment for the entirety of her career ― from at least the time she had to face down hostile comments when she was taking the bar exam to some infamously charged moments in debates during her Senate run in 2000 and her failed presidential bid in 2008.
Like any woman who’s spent her entire career navigating through male-dominated corridors, Clinton’s become fairly adept at turning blatant and subtle sexism to her advantage.
“She’s heard it all before,” said Deborah Kolb, a professor emerita at Simmons College who advises female executives on their careers and is the author of Negotiating at Work. When advising women on negotiation, Kolb likes to counsel them on what she calls “the turn.”
That is, when someone puts you down and you turn their negativity back onto them. “So somebody says, ‘you look tired today.’ Implying that you are not up to the work,” Kolb said. “You can say, ‘I am certainly tired of that kind of comment.’”
In a 2008 debate with Barack Obama ahead of the New Hampshire primaries, Clinton was asked to comment on why voters liked her opponent more than her.
Clinton smiled. “Well, that hurts my feelings,” she said. “But I’ll go on.” Her eyes reflected only amusement. When a few seconds later Obama went on to interrupt her and say “you’re likable enough Hillary,” she did a kind of cute little chair dance. But he comes off as more than a little patronizing and the moment is considered one of Obama’s stumbles during that campaign.
The moment also likely helped to propel Clinton to win the New Hampshire primary.
The “likability” issue is at this point widely acknowledged to be a question no male candidate would face. Did anyone question John McCain’s personality in 2008? Did anyone ask about Trump’s likability in the 2016 GOP primaries?
Deflecting or calling out sexist treatment is Clinton’s special talent in debates, a provocative piece argues on Quartz. Instead of shrinking away from sexism, she’s tended to respond in a highly sympathetic and, yes, likable way.
There’s the now legendary moment in her 2000 run for the Senate, (around 1 minute into the above video) when her opponent, Congressman Rick Lazio, made the mistake of crossing the debate stage, urging Clinton to sign a pledge on soft money and even wagging his finger at her. Played endlessly afterward, Lazio was portrayed as a sexist bully, as this piece in Mother Jones notes. Lazio now says that the moment doomed him. He lost to Clinton by a wide margin.
While acknowledging that Clinton is a smart, seasoned and legendarily well-prepared debater, the Quartz piece implies that it’s the male politicians who make these moments happen ― “by falling into an obvious trap.”
I don’t think it’s so obvious to these guys ― remember they play almost constantly with other men. Politics in the U.S. is a boys club. Men occupy more than 80 percent of the seats in Congress. Men hold the majority of governorships. There’s never been a woman president. Clinton is one of only 46 women to have been a senator since the founding of the U.S.
Male politicians simply aren’t very practiced when it comes to working with women. Clinton on the other hand has spent essentially her entire life navigating male spheres.
Recently, she recounted a story about the hostility she faced when taking her Harvard Law School admissions test:
Her decision to not change her name from Rodham to Clinton is considered a major factor in her husband losing his bid for governor of Arkansas in 1980. Bill Clinton’s opponent Frank White made pointed references to his wife, Mrs. Frank White, throughout the race, as Lisa Lerer writes for the AP. Two years later, when her husband ran for office again, Hillary changed her last name.
She’s been beat up in a host of other gendered ways since then ― for daring to work and raise a kid, for possibly disparaging cookie making, for her husband’s infidelity. And even, for not looking presidential.
If you go back and look at interviews with Clinton, she is asked questions that no man would have to stomach.
She was even criticized for being loud in debates with Bernie Sanders, not one known for his dulcet voice. Though the Clinton campaign at the time tried to portray him as using biased tactics, he fairly successfully avoided falling into any sexist traps during their debate, even famously coming to her defense on “those damn emails.”
Of course, we can’t predict with any certainty that Clinton will best Trump on Monday night. He’s a total wild card. And though he lacks political experience, he knows his way around the TV screen.
Besides, sexism isn’t the only play the reality TV star has up his sleeve. Clinton is vulnerable on other issues, of course. She hasn’t always handled questions about, say, her email so gracefully.
But when it comes to the sexist tropes Trump likes to trade in ― calling women fat pigs, or breastfeeding disgusting, or saying they’re better off at home ― Trump isn’t actually offering up anything new to Clinton. He’s perhaps the purest distillation of decades of piling on.
Clinton’s gender radar is a finely honed instrument ― and her mettle has been repeatedly tested. So it’s no surprise she’s got a track record of turning insults and casual, unconscious sexism to her advantage. If she wasn’t able to do that ― she’d be at home in Chappaqua baking cookies.