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