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Posted by on Mar 16, 2016 in 2016 Elections, 2016 Presidential Election, Politics, Women | 37 comments

Clinton’s Double-Bind


Linguist Deborah Tannen on the double-bind facing Hillary Clinton as a woman running for President in Time.

All these forces have played a role in Clinton being seen as inauthentic and untrustworthy. And they are all related to the double bind that confronts women in positions of authority, as I recently wrote in the Washington Post. A double bind means you must obey two commands, but anything you do to fulfill one violates the other. While the requirements of a good leader and a good man are similar, the requirements of a good leader and a good woman are mutually exclusive. A good leader must be tough, but a good woman must not be. A good woman must be self-deprecating, but a good leader must not be.

Sanders is appealing when he comes across as tough by railing against Wall Street and corporations, and as comfortingly homey and authentic with his rumpled clothes and hair and down-home Brooklyn accent. When Clinton is tough, a characteristic many see as unfeminine, it doesn’t feel right, so she must not be authentic. And a disheveled appearance would pretty much rule her out as an acceptable woman. As Robin Lakoff, the linguist who firstwrote about the double bind confronting women, put it, male candidates can have it both ways but Clinton can have it no ways.

The most difficult aspect of the double bind is that it is invisible; we think we are just reacting to the candidates as individuals. Yet even the words we use to talk about women, as compared to men, come drenched in gender. This is as true for journalists as for voters in conversation. For example, joining a chorus of praise for Clinton’s performance in the first Democratic debate, New YorkTimes columnist Frank Bruni used words that undercut her authority. He began by characterizing her as a “seamstress” because she “threaded the needle as delicately and perfectly as a politician could.” Sewing clothes and threading a needle require skill and dexterity, but the metaphor feminizes—and trivializes—the tasks for which these skills are suited. Bruni ended by calling Clinton a “sorceress” because she came across as forward-looking and energetic despite her “many decades in the political trenches.” The word “sorceress” not only diminishes with its –ess ending (would you entrust your life to a doctoress?), but also evokes a long history of demonizing (literally) powerful women as witches.

There is probably no such thing as a level playing field in political campaigns. But the field on which Hillary Clinton is playing is far bumpier than Bernie Sanders’ because she’s a woman.

Cross-posted from The Sensible Center

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  • The Ohioan

    More claptrap from a pseudo feminist. Perhaps these apologists should take a look at some of the strong women leaders who have been successful and … really think about it.

    • Not so fast.

      “Claptrap”–the notion of the double-bind is well-known in the family therapy and linguistic/communications literature.

      “Pseudo-feminist”–Tannen is the author of “You Just Don’t Understand” which has become a classic in the marital therapy and gender communication fields. A faculty position at Georgetown underscores her position as a heavyweight.I think it is safe to say that Tannen is among those who have “really thought about it.”

      Gender-based double-binds are not unique to Hillary Clinton. The “strong women” in our political history certainly faced similar barriers if not worse. Dismissing them as “claptrap” underplays what they overcame and how strong these women really were.

      Are you sure you want to do that?

      • The problem here is that, regardless of the validity of Tannen’s argument in general, it comes across as “claptrap” when applied to Clinton.

        Starting out with “All these forces have played a role in Clinton being seen as inauthentic and untrustworthy” ignores the number one reason why Clinton is seen as inauthentic and untrustworthy. She lies, and lies a lot more than other politicians. She also quite frequently takes the safe political position, and then alters it when another position is safer. While other politicians also do this to some degree, Clinton does it far more often.

        Voters recognize this and the view of her as dishonest has correlated with her actions and statements. The view of her as dishonest jumped in the polls when the email scandal broke and fact checkers exposed her statements on this as lies. She also didn’t help herself as she had to revise her statements as more information came out contradicting what she said previously.

        Any arguments for other reasons why Clinton comes across as inauthentic and untrustworthy beyond her own dishonesty are bound to come across as claptrap when her dishonesty is considered, regardless of whether these factors apply to other women.

        • Clinton’s overall record for honesty is actually slightly better on than Sanders when “True” and “Mostly True” statements are compared to “Mostly False”, “False” and “Pants on Fire” ratings. Here are the numbers:

          Clinton: 51% to 28%

          Sanders: 51% to 31%

          • That is a poor way to tell who is more honest. It often comes down to how many statements they check. More importantly, Clinton’s lies are much more significant than the often minor errors which they cite Sanders on. Clinton has told major lies regarding matters of public policy, regarding covering up her unethical actions in office, and has greatly distorted Sanders’ record in recent debates and campaign statements.

            There is no comparison between Clinton’s lies and what is listed at Politifact on Sanders.

          • Politifact rates an even hundred of Clinton’s statements versus 75 for Sanders, probably due to Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State as well as participating in two POTUS campaigns. If anything, the greater number translates to higher scrutiny. It makes her slight advantage more impressive.

            As for your claim that Clinton’s factual inaccuracies are much more significant, that is a very subjective statement with zero back-up. While we are making subjective statements, I think you employ a double standard, raking HRC over the coals for her inaccuracies while blithely dismissing Sanders’.

            I think the inaccuracies of both are partly because politicians make a lot of public statements and sometimes simply mis-state things. I also think politicians are prone to hyperbole, the Republicans more than the Democrats, largely because the GOP base believes a lot of things that are simply false and politicians tell their voting base what it wants to hear.

            By the way, the true to false totals of both candidates are consistent with most major Democratic politicians at just under 2 to 1–Obama’s is 48% to 26% but on over 500 statements.

          • It is neither subjective nor without backup. I have had multiple posts on the rather substantial lies from Clinton.

            Politifact is often dealing with errors on fact, not the types of major lies which I am referring to about Clinton, and which is responsible for her well-deserved reputation for dishonesty.

          • Yes, you have gone on about Clinton’s prevarications. Sanders is hardly an innocent, particularly with respect to his wild claims about the results of his economics policies.


          • There is no comparison between the actual lies from Clinton and the differences of opinion on economic policy in your linked post.

          • “Difference of opinion”–seriously?

            It is not the policies themselves that are at issue. The claims made by the Sanders campaign of the results of the policies are. Drum acknowledges:

            “The discouraging thing here is that Friedman’s critics aren’t saying that Sanders’ proposals are bad. You can support every single element of his plan with a clear conscience. Their criticism is solely about forecasting how his plan will affect economic growth. And on that score, it’s not even remotely realistic. It’s about like saying his Medicare-for-all plan will increase life expectancy ten years. It’s beyond belief. No matter who you support, you shouldn’t do it based on fantasies like this.”

            Supporters of the policies (including those 170 economists signing the letter of support) are supporting the policies but not the Sanders campaign’s claims about them. In fuzzying up that distinction, you are dodging the issue. So is the Sanders campaign.

            That is exactly the kind of stunt that you are roasting Clinton for. Yet, for Sanders it is dismissed as a “difference of opinion.”


          • You are promoting a distortion of Sanders’ views and then trying to pass it off as a lie. Support for Sanders’ proposals is not based upon what Friedman wrote.

            There is nothing even remotely analogous in this type of criticism and the types of lies which earned Clinton her reputation for dishonesty.

          • I have had my say. I feel no need to repeat it.

          • Bob Munck

            Ballard, you aren’t going to change Ron’s mind. I had this same argument with him when he first used the and articles to support his point that Trump and Clinton are the major liars of the presidential candidates. You are saying something favorable about Clinton and something unfavorable about Sanders. This cannot be allowed.

            That discussion is here in the comments section. I chased Ron all over the field until he finally took a knee.

          • Bob, What do you mean took a knee? I pointed out there that your argument made no sense. The fact check articles clearly backed me up.

          • Bob Munck

            The fact check articles clearly backed me up.

            I know you think so.

          • Thanks for the empathic response, Bob. Agree that disagreement seems verboten with Ron, with respect to HRC and Sanders. With respect, I can’t see Ron ever taking a knee. Oops, looks like he proved it.

          • Why would I take a knee when the facts are on my side? Disagreement is fine, but it is a different matter when you play fast and loose with the facts. The fact that you have to lower yourself to making these personal attacks when your argument was debunked only supports my case.

            Plus Bob can’t get over the fact that the fact checkers have repeatedly sided with me over him.

          • Bob Munck

            you play fast and loose with the facts. … lower yourself making these personal attacks

            Truly amazing!

          • “A distortion of Sanders’ views” I’m sorry, Ron, but you are no stranger to exaggerated hyperbole yourself. I can’t let this one pass.

            Warren Tunnels, Sanders’ policy director, publicly embraced the Friedman paper (and its predictions) on CNN, NPR, and in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


            Come on. If your policy director is out in the media promoting Friedman’s paper, then it means the campaign is standing behind it. There’s no two ways about this. I am not passing anything off.

          • Sanders’ policy director is Gunnells, not Tunnels.

          • More false spin. Of course any political campaign is going to comment favorably on a paper which is favorable to the candidate.

            That does not mean it has anything to do with the campaign. Friedman is a Clinton supporter who has nothing to do with the Sanders campaign.

            Going beyond this make claims along the lines that Sanders’ policies are based upon the paper is just one of many dishonest attacks on Sanders coming from the Clinton camp.

          • Obvious that further exchange is useless. Highly ironic that anyone who disagrees with you is engaging in “false spin” while you engage in much of that yourself but won’t cop to it. The mark of the true believer–often wrong but never in doubt.

            Feel free to have the last word.

          • It is a simple matter of fact that these arguments from the Clinton camp are false spin. I have demonstrated how they are wrong based upon the facts. It has nothing to do with being a true believer. The facts happen to be on my side here. Facts are facts.

            However it is rather typical of Clinton supporters, after it is demonstrated that the Clinton argument is false, to resort to such ad hominem attacks. The typical Clinton strategy–deny any wrong doing on Clinton’s part (despite the massive evidence against her, distract with bogus arguments, such as re Friedman, and it ultimately ends with personal attacks. The vast majority of responses from Clinton and her supporters follow the same pattern.

          • Bob Munck

            Feel free to have the last word.

            … last 525 words. And the requisite gratuitous shot at you.

          • You are making a bogus argument that Sanders lied because claims in a paper from a Clinton supporter which his campaign mentioned are overly optimistic.

            Friedman’s claims are not from Sanders, and therefore Sanders cannot be reasonably accused of lying based upon them. However, if you consider making promises one cannot reasonably be expected to keep, it is Clinton who has been dishonest here, such as with her promises to get the lead out of pipes in five years:


            We all expect politicians to be overly optimistic in their predictions, and this is not really the type of lie which Clinton gets her reputation for. The types of lies and dishonest conduct I’m referring to include:

            Arguing to go to war in Iraq based upon claiming there were ties between Saddam and al Qaeda, going far beyond the claims of most supporters of the war.

            Trying to rewrite history with regards to her past views on the war and on same sex marriage, which the fact checkers hit her hard on in 2015. Plus having engaged in attacks on gay rights at times in the past when politically expedient.

            Claiming to have been broke after leaving the White House to justify her unethical means of making money, with Bill and Hillary making well over one hundred million. This includes accepting money for speeches, and Foundation contributions, from parties which Hillary was making decisions about as Secretary of State. If this isn’t bad enough, she also failed to comply with an agreement she accepted to disclose the names of all contributors because of this type of conflict of interest.

            Multiple lies about her email which fact checkers have repeatedly called her out on, and then repeating the same lies.

            Distorting Sanders’ record, such as on guns when it was Clinton who campaigned as a pro-gun church goer in 2008, scare stories that Sanders was going to take away Medicare and Obamacare from people, falsely claiming he wrote an anti-Obama forward to a book, and falsely claiming that Sanders opposed the auto bailout just before the Michigan primary.

            Even the New York Times, which endorsed Clinton, ran an editorial calling out Clinton for lying about Sanders’ record with regards to guns and the auto bailout.

            Attacking Sanders based upon Friedman’s claims is yet another distortion from the Clinton camp.

            There are many reasons other than gender that Clinton is considered dishonest–and there is nothing comparable in Sanders’ record.

      • The Ohioan


        First: Hillary is seen as inauthentic and untrustworthy, but not because she’s a woman.

        Second: A leader must be seen as “tough” (I’d say rather – stalwart or resilient) but being seen occasionally as self-deprecating is not necessarily a fault is it? Nor are women denigrated for being either, not by reasonable persons in the USA in the 21st century at least. Why does the notion it is a wide spread phenomenon persist?

        Meir, and Thatcher were strong, successful leaders and, as Thatcher said, she owed nothing to feminism. That’s not to say that some men may think a woman is not a “good woman” if she is strong or self-deprecating, but men do not determine what a good woman is – she does.

        A leader may have to be astute, or resilient, or conciliatory, or stalwart, or a dozen other things at different times. All of which women are as capable of as men are and any woman (or man) who thinks otherwise would probably not be a good leader.

        Ms. Tannen may be all you say, but in fact people who aspire to lead are always subject to criticism and double binds apply to men as well as women. A leader must learn to work around them and/or use them to their advantage. Complaining about them doesn’t change them and sounds somewhat like whining. Just sayin’.

        Yes, I know, easy to say – never having run for office. 🙂

        • Agree that, fair or not, all public figures are subject to criticism that must be overcome if they are to make their mark. HRC is obviously no exception. She should be elected, or not, on the merits of her own record as a candidate.

          Regarding “whining”, Clinton did not write this. As I think I have established, Tannen has sufficient status in her field that calling her a shill is absurd. You can quibble with her choice of words. However, if you think Clinton, as well as other female candidates, do not have a more complex task than men do in winning and holding elective office, I’m not sure what to say. National office is still largely a white male province. I think Tannen puts a finger on some of the reasons why it remains so.

          • The Ohioan

            OK I went to the Time article and read it all.

            Sorry, I just don’t see the problem; it was a problem in earlier times, but the number of women in office now has increased tremendously and is increasing all the time. The reason there aren’t more is probably women’s commitment to family before career. Who knows how many excellent leaders have decided against leading because they chose not to?

            If a woman is going to change her appearance, or votes, or whatever because she thinks it’s necessary to succeed, she’s missing the essence of being a leader. Leaders lead, they don’t follow other’s dictates. Sorry, it all seems rather petty when you consider what, and how, Ms.’s Roosevelt, Meir, Thatcher, Gandhi, and others faced challenges in their careers.

            We will have to agree to disagree, I feel, though I’m usually with you 100%. Keep on keeping on.

          • Bernie started brushing his hair, I’ve noticed. Christy tried the lap band.
            Yes, women get judged more on their appearance, but it’s not an absolute and actually diminishes in many ways with age.
            The arguments that bother me are that I should some how give Clinton a pass the cause she’s a woman- and that seems anti-feminist. I wouldn’t vote for Sarah Palin because she’s a woman. I judge the candidates on their merits as I see them. If Clinton gets the nomination, I will vote for her. I will hope that her ‘tough’ stances are an appeal to those who believe woman aren’t tough enough and hope that she governs with a little more caution on intervention. Sexism does exist, but to attribute all criticisms to it is disingenuous. The ‘smile’ tweet from Scarborough was an example of one of the annoying vestiges, but doesn’t change the fact that we can disagree policy wise. Just as I believe their has been over attribution to racism regarding Obama. Republicans didn’t treat Bill very well either. Biehners son-in-law is black. That doesn’t mean there is no racism, just that racism doesn’t account for all of the obstruction.

          • Speaking of hair, here’s one positive sign in terms of paying less attention to the irrelevant. Eight years ago there was a lot of media noise about John Edwards’ expensive haircuts. This year there was a story about the cost of Clinton’s hair styling, but very little has been made of it compared to the stories on Edwards in the 2008 primaries. (Or maybe that is because we expect women to do this, but not men.)

            Yes, there are far too many arguments to give Clinton a pass because of being a woman, along with the false claims that virtually all criticism of Clinton is sexist.

            There also have been a number of people who have tried to correlate Clinton’s hawkishness with gender. She has both been defended for being a hawk with arguments that a woman has to be tougher, and criticized with comparable arguments that she is taking a more hawkish stance because it is what she needs to do politically. I have no idea if gender has a role in her hawkishness. After all, there are plenty of male neocons, and she is also conservative in other areas.

          • dduck

            Yep, LE.
            I will also vote for Hillary, because she is Rep-Lite and Trump is inexperienced (like Obama was). I do believe he is intelligent enough to learn on the job, however, and in spite of all of his phony BS.
            My last hope is a Kasich miracle.

          • Re the possibility of a Kasich miracle:


            As for Trump, with all the reasons not to vote for him, inexperience is far down the list.

          • Fair enough.

          • Cool. Agree that things have improved and that HRC doesn’t face near what, say, Eleanor Roosevelt did.

  • dduck
    • See- now that’s sexism. Hillary didn’t grow up in the world where girls played little league and are used to things being thrown at them. 🙂

  • Deb Tanness is a wonderful linguistess!

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