As a possible candidate for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton could face the challenge of her career and it is not the glass ceiling. The unspoken prohibition on a woman in leadership is only of secondary importance to how her campaign could possibly reframe the largely sexist discussion of women in the media. In some ways, Clinton is the perfect example of a woman who has accomplished much on her own terms. Instead of living in her famous husband’s shadow, she achieved her own greatness and a fame that has arguably surpassed Bill’s own. Yet that fact is often ignored by media representations in which subtle sexism creeps. Recent discussions about how much money she makes for speaking engagements have focused on criticising her alienation from the middle class, but there is another story there that has been largely ignored. It is the quintessentially American story of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. The question is not why this is happening, but what Hillary and her campaign (should there be one) will do about it. How will Hillary Clinton make the point that even though women wear heels they can still pull themselves up by the bootstraps?
The issue of middle class voters aside, Hillary’s wealth has revealed a flaw in the news coverage of her as a woman and even in her own handling of it. The narrative has been framed for the most part like this: the former Secretary of State makes $200,000 per speech which has earned her around $5 million and that makes her out of touch with regular people because she is so rich. Hillary has stumbled over this topic with references to things like needing to buy houses. Regular people do not usually buy more than one house. This has added validity to the argument that she is too rich to know how things really are for Middle America and she has let the matter slip by without giving it a truly satisfactory answer.
But there is another way she could have handled it and still could. Clinton could have countered with a story of hard work and effort, a kind of self-made-woman story. Instead of resting on her husband’s laurels and letting him take care of the finances, she went out and worked. She built a career around her own record, eventually eclipsing the popularity of her husband. It would have been easy to sit back and let Bill do all the earning. He has made around $100 million from his speeches, a number that makes her own $5 million seem small by comparison. That kind of income could have made for a comfortable existence, but Hillary did not mooch off someone else. She made a name for herself on her own terms. She pulled herself up by her own bootstraps.
Clinton has not taken this firm narrative and used it to her advantage. She has tried to sidestep the issue by making it a matter of necessity rather than ambition. No one really believes her sob-story explanation that they were broke and in debt, even if that may have been the fact at the time. Clinton needs to frame herself not by past circumstances, but by a success story that people can aspire to. That is the way the to appeal to middle class voters because ultimately that is what everyone wants to do. That is the American Dream.
Nevertheless, the sexist overtones of how the matter of money has been handled cannot be overlooked and it is there that Hillary can make a real point. Men who make a lot of money with speeches are not subjected to the same criticism as she has been. No one is upset about the $100 million Bill Clinton has made with his speeches. Similarly, no one was saying that Donald Trump has made too much by charging for his appearances when he was a Republican candidate for president and he made $1.5 million on one speech. Rudy Giuliani, another Republican candidate, once made $270,000 for a speech in 2005, but no one told him that was too much money when he started to run for the White House. There seems to be a double standard between these men and Hillary.
Women can be success stories while wearing heels and Hillary Clinton needs to somehow make that point. She is no slouch when it comes to pointing out sexism in interviews or otherwise. In an interview with Diane Sawyer she was asked whether she could be a grandmother and president. Not only did Hillary give an extremely affirmative answer, but she pointed out the sexism of the question itself. “Men have been serving in that position, being fathers and grandfathers, since the beginning of the Republic.” She was quick to point out the double standard then, though not so quick to do so recently.
While Sawyer’s question was quite obviously sexist, some of the more recent examples have been subtler. The issue of her speech fees is one example, as is some of the responses in the media. The National Journal ran a piece about the sexism of the story and how to handle it. The author gave Hillary the advice that she dial back the air of inevitability that surrounds her. An air of humility would make her more relatable to people and give her campaign a boost and help women fight sexism. In doing so “she would never give up on those ambitions [of being president]; she would merely shed the off-putting appearance of them.” By playing the issue of her money in a different way, the argument is that she could make herself look better.
But is it really better? The central point of the piece is not really that Hillary could do some good towards ending sexism, but that the confidence with which people view her possible run for the White House is obnoxious. Yet it does not seem to be irritating when men do it. A book tour such as the one Clinton is on right now is often considered a sign of intent to run for election. Obama did it ten years ago with the release of Dreams from My Father. Both Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have also had book deals that coincide with Hillary’s. Having an air of confidence about their chances in a future election are not bad for them, so why is it bad for Hillary in virtually the same circumstances? Is it because she is a woman?
Sexism is a complicated prejudice to police. Important issues of a person’s record or policy can be boiled down to a question of sexism instead of given the consideration they deserve. That should not be allowed to happen if Clinton actually does decide to run for president. It would cloud the real problems that Americans face, such as inequality, healthcare, and rising debt that will require serious focus both in the short term and the long-term. But for the most part topics like Hillary’s money and the confidence surrounding her are not substantive policy issues. They have nothing to do with what she might do in office. They are about appearances and appearances alone, which is where sexism really raises its ugly head.
Hillary’s awareness of this fact will be invaluable to her should she officially become a candidate for president. She has plenty of experience with it and has spoken about it before. “Often times when women are treated in a sexist way, when comments are made – whether it be about their appearance… whatever it might be – you just swallow it.” Now is not the time to put up with sexism, however. The National Journal article got one thing exactly right about Hillary. She can have a substantial effect on sexism in America, but not by changing herself. She can do it by being herself and by revealing the lengths to which sexism goes in the process. Hillary Clinton could very possibly be the first woman president of the United States and she could do it while wearing heels.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury