The Era of ‘The Bitch’ Is Coming
Get ready for the era of The Bitch.
If Hillary Clinton wins the White House in November, it will be a historic moment, the smashing of the preeminent glass ceiling in American public life. A mere 240 years after this nation’s founding, a woman will occupy its top office. America’s daughters will at last have living, breathing, pantsuit-wearing proof that they too can grow up to be president.
A Clinton victory also promises to usher in four-to-eight years of the kind of down-and-dirty public misogyny you might expect from a stag party at Roger Ailes’s house.
You know it’s coming. As hyperpartisanship, grievance politics, and garden-variety rage shift from America’s first black commander-in-chief onto its first female one, so too will the focus of political bigotry. Some of it will be driven by genuine gender grievance or discomfort among some at being led by a woman. But in plenty of other cases, slamming Hillary as a bitch, a c**t (Thanks, Scott Baio!), or a menopausal nut-job (an enduringly popular theme on Twitter) will simply be an easy-peasy shortcut for dismissing her and delegitimizing her presidency.
Either way, it’ll be best to brace for some in-your-face sexist drivel in the coming years. Despite progress in the business world, women as top executives still prompt an extra shot of public scrutiny. (Just ask Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg or Carly Fiorina.) And just as Barack Obama’s election did not herald a shiny, new post-racial America, Clinton’s would not deliver one of gender equality and enlightenment. So goes progress: Two steps forward, one step back(lash). As the culture changes, people resent that change and start freaking out, others look to exploit their fear, and things can turn really, really nasty on their way to getting better.
Raw political sexism is already strutting its stuff. At Donald Trump’s coming-out party in Cleveland, vendors stood outside the Quicken Loans Arena hawking campaign buttons with whimsical messages, such as “Life’s a Bitch—don’t vote for one” and “KFC Hillary Special: Two fat thighs, two small breasts… left wing.” One popular T-shirt featured a grinning Trump piloting a Harley, grinning as Hillary tumbled off the bike so that you could read the back of Trump’s shirt: “IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THE BITCH FELL OFF.”
“People will have no problem vilifying her and saying the most misogynistic things imaginable.”
The home-crafted humor was equally tasteful, like the guy in a Hillary mask brandishing a large “Trump vs. Tramp” sign or (my personal favorite) the conventioneer who put together an elaborate “Game of Thrones”-themed ensemble incorporating a life-sized, inflatable Hillary doll—naked, of course.
Social media is awash in references to Clinton as a bitch, among less-flattering terms. “Trump that Bitch!” T-shirts are this season’s must-have couture at Trump rallies. And how about the tween boy yelling, “Take the bitch down!” at a recent Trump event in Virginia? Pure class.
It would be nice to think that this is all merely a heat-of-the-campaign thing—that if Hillary wins in November, the baser attacks will fade, and she will be treated with a smidge more respect. Fat chance. (Just ask Obama how that panned out for him.) “It will probably become even more overt the more power she attains because the more threatening she is,” predicted Farida Jalalzai, a political scientist at Oklahoma State University who focuses on gender. “People will have no problem vilifying her and saying the most misogynistic things imaginable.”
Just as Obama’s presidency helped bring unresolved issues about race into the mainstream political discussion, a Hillary presidency would likely do the same for issues like equal pay and child care. And while such discussions clearly need to be had, they pretty quickly can get heated. “Clinton will be walking a fine line,” said Leonie Huddy, a professor of political science at Stony Brook University. She will be a historic figure who brings a different perspective to the job. “But she is also going to be evaluated through the lens of, Is she just there for women? Maybe she will do something bad to men. There is a latent fear among men that their position in American society will decline further. So while there are a lot of guys on board for equalizing gender power, there are also quite a few who aren’t.”
It does not help that Trump has been ginning up anti-woman sentiment, said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. “He has really motivated a lot of his supporters to be concerned and sort of feed on this gender resentment—the idea that women are getting too far, that Hillary is getting too far and is not really qualified, and that the only reason she has been successful is because she is a woman,” said Lawless.
Not that the bulk of the misogyny necessarily will have much to do with gender anxiety. Often, gender (like race) simply becomes a convenient tool to delegitimize a politician, said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “It’s an easier attack than actually getting into substance.”
“The broader problem is that it is just a lazy way, an easy way” to dismiss one’s political adversary, asserted Julia Gillard, who got up close and personal with this phenomenon during her time as the first woman prime minister of Australia.
As head of the Australian Labor Party, Gillard served as prime minister from 2010 to 2013. Her tenure was turbulent and notable for what Gillard termed in her exit speech the “gender wars.” What surprised the former PM most about the experience: that the sexist attacks grew worse as her time in office progressed. “I expected the maximum reaction to my being the first woman prime minister to come in the first few months,” she told me. “What I found living through the reality was that the sort of gendered stuff actually grew over time” as she tackled tough policy decisions. (Gillard too was derided as a “menopausal monster.”)