In an election where the nominees of the two main parties are a man and a woman, this was always going to be a major question, even if it is rarely posed so starkly. The very fact that one of the main political parties has nominated a woman as their candidate in this race is rightly seen as an enormous step forward for gender equality, creating an important role model for women and girls. But at the same time, many of the responses to Hillary Clinton suggest a real ambivalence among Americans about a woman occupying the highest political office in the land.
The 2016 US presidential election campaign famously features two of the most unpopular candidates in living memory. But while the basis of Donald Trump's unpopularity seems very straightforward (it is difficult for him to gain support from groups that he has openly belittled, insulted and threatened), the reasons that voters fail to warm to Hillary Clinton are more complex. There are, of course, Clinton policy positions that prompt opposition from voters on both the left and the right, but her stance on the issues only represents part of the discomfort that many Americans feel when they consider supporting her.
Western liberal feminism has taught generations of women that in order to succeed in traditionally male-dominated professions, they should learn to behave more like men. Women should gain relevant qualifications, demonstrate their commitment to the workplace and put themselves forward for important and prestigious roles. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, women should "lean in".
Hillary Clinton has followed this set of rules to perfection throughout her adult life. As a result, she is probably the best-qualified non-incumbent ever to seek the American presidency. But responses to her show us that voters do not want a woman president who behaves like a man. When Clinton behaves in masculine ways (exhibiting a serious, non-nonsense manner and tone of voice, remaining calm and in control even in the face of provocation), she is perceived as cold and unsympathetic. On those (rare) occasions when she has shown emotion in public, voters have warmed to her. This happened most famously during her previous attempt to become president in 2008, when she came close to tears in front of voters and the press. Her victory over Obama in the New Hampshire primary was attributed to this display of vulnerability.
But while American voters seem to want to see the more feminine side of Clinton, the line she is expected to walk between behaving too much like a man and too much like a woman is a fine one indeed. It is also invisible and it does not necessarily stay in the same place for very long. How can she get her facial expression right, for example? Clinton has been criticized both for not smiling enough and for smiling too much.
If we take the focus on gendered aspects of Clinton's appearance and behaviour to a logical extreme, we arrive at a comment by Donald Trump in a speech following the second presidential debate on 9 October. By telling a crowd of supporters that he was not impressed with what he saw when Clinton stood in front of him to address the audience, Trump was effectively saying that, regardless of the circumstances, a woman should expect to be judged on the basis of her sexual appeal to (straight) men.
Although many Americans have welcomed the presence of a woman on the ballot for president, there is widespread disappointment that the particular woman chosen is such an unpopular figure. But could it have been otherwise? The chances of a female candidate successfully navigating the contradictory expectations of American voter seem slim to non-existent, at least at this point in the nation's political development.
Is the United States ready for a woman president? Probably not. But perhaps there is no way it can become ready. Perhaps the only way for many Americans to reconcile their understanding of what it means to be a woman with their understanding of what it means to be a president is for America to have the actual, everyday experience of seeing a woman being president.Suggest a correction