Without Sexist Spin, Who Is Hillary?

image of a young professional whispering to another
image of a young professional whispering to another

The political messaging for November's elections grows more intense by the day. Using both traditional and social media, candidates and their SuperPACs purvey both explicit positions and invidious beliefs. We are subjected to truths and half-truths, facts and fiction -- many of them used to spread hatred, fear and prejudice.

The most obvious messaging is a repeating refrain of hate-filled messages that denigrate immigrants and refugees, and target Latinos, African-Americans and Muslims. Yet there is also a quiet melody, purposefully sotto voce, that undermines women candidates by triggering often unrecognized but pervasive sexist stereotypes. The drumbeat of explicit attacks has distracted many who might otherwise be sensitive to sexist messages.

Subtly sexist attacks are being launched through a two-part formula: (1) attack strengths by (2) using sexist spin. They start with Karl Rove's tactic of identifying and undermining a candidate's strengths. That's what the so-called "Swift Boaters" did to John Kerry: recognizing that his military service and heroism would be strengths for his candidacy, and then purposefully generating doubts about them.

For women candidates, however, Republicans go beyond challenging perceived strengths to invoke sexist stereotypes. Where certain talents or skills are respected in male candidates, they are maligned in women candidates by linking them with sexist attitudes. For example, similar behavior by men and women is often praised as assertive for men but criticized as aggressive for women.

The power of such messaging comes from stereotypes and attitudes that are subconscious or unrecognized. As compared with statements that are outright racist or anti-Muslim, sexist messaging often goes unchallenged. Yet as important as it is to respond unambiguously to openly stated biases, it is equally critical to counter sexist attacks.

Though the formula of attacking strengths and conjuring sexist associations is employed frequently, here are three illustrations relating to Hillary Rodham Clinton:

1. Clinton's most fundamental strength is her breadth and depth of experience -- as an active and engaged First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State. Traditional sexist derision relates to her extraordinary work as First Lady on behalf of women around the world. The value and impacts of those actions are belittled or minimized because she was a First Lady.

Her opponents' strategy has instead targeted her service as Secretary of State. In that role, her strengths include solid knowledge of the world and its leaders (not just seeing Russia from Alaska, or knowing the name of Jordan's current king), having experienced the unpredictable and often inevitable loss of trusted colleagues targeted by terrorists, and having mastered the challenge of handling constant streams of information while engaged in meetings, travel and decision-making. To generate doubts, Republican leadership has challenged her e-mail practices and admitted to politically-motivated Benghazi hearings.

Yet sexist dimensions have increased the impacts. With regard to Benghazi, criticism implies that she failed as a woman because she somehow did not care about people, or was too busy to take care of her State Department family. Her use of a personal email system employs a double standard: Whereas others, including Secretary Colin Powell, had done the same, the Clinton focus plays on sexist fears that girls tell secrets or whisper behind peoples' backs.

2. Next, they target Clinton's intellectual abilities. Clinton's academic and professional peers have praised her critical thinking, debating and public speaking for decades. So to challenge the strength of her speaking abilities, for which she has been able to command significant fees, opponents question payments she has earned from speaking engagements on Wall Street. They emphasize who paid her to speak rather than what they purchased: a first-rate, thoughtful and articulate speaker.

Yet such claims are craftier with a sexist dimension: Certainly Wall Street firms pay substantial fees to many speakers, undoubtedly mostly men and including many Republicans. The sexist implication is that only cronyism and corruption could explain the payment of such substantial fees to a woman.

3. But the most disturbing example of attacking a strength is targeting Hillary Clinton's lifelong dedication to women and children. From the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women (where she famously opined "Women's right are human rights") through her years as Secretary of State, Clinton has led global efforts to expose injustices against women and to focus attention on women's needs and contributions. At the same time, she has also been a tireless advocate for children and families, from early work with the Children's Legal Defense Fund to her book, It Takes a Village. She has a long and dedicated history of advocating for women and children.

Again, sexist reasoning is a strategic approach: to undermine Clinton's appeal to female voters. It has been a particularly perverse and cynical move to suggest that Hillary Clinton's decision to defend her husband and question the accounts of women accusing him of sexual harassment is evidence that she has not been a truly principled advocate for women. The mentality behind this is familiar: When Anita Hill testified that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, members of Congress sought to impeach her truthfulness for not having come forward earlier. In response, women around the country spoke up, noting how many had made the difficult choice to put their professional careers ahead of principled challenges to unlawful harassment.

The effort to impeach Hillary Clinton's commitment to women's rights is similar. Her failure to publicly support or sympathize with the women who accused her husband of sexual harassment does not contravene her feminist credentials. Life is complicated, and she faced an impossible situation, an unenviable clash of principles and values. It is only sexist and duplicitous machinations to suggest that her personally painful decisions at that time put into question her dedication to the welfare and rights of women. Rather than accept suggestions that feminists are the sources of accusations against Clinton, we should recognize the work of Clinton's opponents -- who at the same time seek to divide and conquer.

When politicians spew hate-filled messages to promote themselves, we should push back immediately and fervently. But we do a disservice to ourselves and to our country if we allow ourselves to overlook another stream of messages calculated to shape our thinking and influence our choices. As we voters seek to know and judge our options for November's elections, including many highly qualified women, we must be vigilant for the sexist spin. Only then will we be able to assess our alternatives wisely and cast our votes for the most qualified candidates.