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Losing The Presidency: The Role Of Gender Politics In Hillary Clinton's Downfall

09/11/2016 13:52
Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The potent combination of sex and power has been continually at the forefront of the US presidential election; allegations of corruption linked to sex scandals, presidential dynasties and sexual infidelities, misogynistic behaviours and sexist posturing.

With the election behind us and victory for Trump we might well assume that the politics of gender will now be replaced by the business of running the country. However the historic news of Trump's victory as the first US president to enter the White House without political experience raises questions about the role that gender politics have played in the presidential election.

My research examining experiences, perceptions and expectations of women leaders has shown how women are viewed as out of place in leadership roles; they disrupt social perceptions and expectations that identify men as natural leaders. Where men are viewed as natural successors to leadership roles, women face an ongoing battle of legitimation and continual scrutiny of their leadership with reference to their gender. In other words women simply do not possess the gender capital afforded to men.

Studies show that men are able to draw on masculine behaviours, viewed as naturally possessed by them and if they employ typically feminine traits such as sensitivity this is seen to add to their existing leadership competence. This is not the same for women. By not fitting the socially accepted leadership mould, women must continually perform a complex balancing act to accrue capital that proves their legitimacy and authority as leaders. This requires careful negotiation. If women display leaderful 'masculine' qualities they may be assessed as displaying inappropriate behaviour for women, yet if they exhibit what are recognised as feminine characteristics they may be evaluated as not being leaderful.

In this regard, criticisms levelled at Clinton during the campaign for a lack of authenticity and warmth have been crucial to public perceptions of her fitness to be a leader. As a female in a traditionally male role her very presence does not ring true and attempts at warmth or emotion, typically feminine characteristics, place her at risk of being judged as too sentimental and not able to make a rational judgment.

Research into representations of women leaders in the media shows how these double standards are played out through text and imagery. Political cartoons of Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, for instance have adopted sexual imagery to depict and deride her use of masculine behaviours such as her ambition and assertiveness, while portraying the demonstration of feminine related collaborative and caring qualities as manipulative and calculating. Judged against a male norm, women in high office like Clinton are found lacking on two fronts; they are not natural inhabitants of the leadership role and in their ambition to lead they are not fulfilling the accepted, supportive role attributed to women. This may explain why Michelle Obama was so warmly received during the campaign in her support of Clinton. As loyal wife and campaign supporter, she is neither competitor nor contender.

Women's disruptive status as leaders also draws attention to the female body. My research illuminates how not conforming to traditional understandings of what leaders look like, places undue emphasis on women's physicality and their appearance. Women are assessed in terms of their body shape, their attractiveness, their clothing, their hairstyle, their make-up; evaluations that are rarely levelled at men.

We witnessed this in the US pro Republican marketing campaign with merchandise vitriolic in its assessment of Clinton's body, and reminiscent of the barrage of misogynistic behaviour aimed at Julia Gillard throughout her premiership of Australia. With T-shirts, posters and pins decorated with language and images that would be deemed unacceptable if levelled at any other social group, the presidential campaign has highlighted how gendered stereotypes continue to shape social perceptions of men and women and their ambitions for leadership.

In spite of Trump's lack of political experience, by virtue of being a woman Clinton's positioning as a presidential candidate was much more precarious. Gender is a fundamental organising element and this has been starkly illuminated in this presidential election. From this perspective, gender politics has undoubtedly played a role in Clinton's defeat. However with Trump poised to take up office in the White House and Clinton defeated, this leaves a profound challenge and a pressing concern; how to address the systemic and deep rooted sexism revealed by this presidential campaign.

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