The Hillary Problem: Women Should be NICE

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Everybody wants to tell me how they feel about Hillary.

Super Tuesday has come and gone. In spite of the fact that Hillary Rodham Clinton won the majority of the votes on that day, which usually cements the leading presidential candidates for both parties, her nomination as the Democratic Party candidate is not at all secure.

Obama has won eight straight primaries, and leads the race by a small but significant margin, aided by the fact that he continues to win over voter demographics that have been, in the past, more inclined to vote for Clinton.

This is, of course, fascinating – a close race, an important decision – and I’m more than willing to talk about the candidates’ policies, track records, voter bases, etc. with anyone who shows a vague interest in the subject. In fact, I keep getting suckered into conversations about it, only to face, again and again, the ugly truth: when it comes to Hillary C., her politics are the last thing that anyone wants to talk about.

Most of the folks who want to talk Hillary with me forgo any discussion of her career. They’d rather focus on her personality – which is, according to most of the folks in my vicinity, cold, harsh, ambitious, calculating, conniving, aggressive, angry, bitchy, and even (gasp!) lesbian.

God help me, I try to engage with these people. But at some point during the endless recitation of Hillary’s character flaws, my eyes glaze over and I tune out. Because, I swear, no matter what they say, the translation software in my brain supplies the same meaning over and over again: not a girl, not a girl, not a girl

We all know the stereotypes: women are gentler, kinder creatures than men. We focus on relationships and cooperation. We’re emotional. We’re nurturing. We share. We care. Why, we women are just great big muffin baskets full of puppies and sunshine. We’re definitely nicer than those goal-focused, aggressive, decisive, competition-minded men.

It seems a little sad to be raising this point in 2008, but these stereotypes still control the way that many people view the world. Women, especially women in power, are still expected to put way more energy into nurturing and appeasing people than men are. When we don’t, we’re perceived as incompetent, or just plain mean.

One recent study measured bosses’ ability to perceive subtle emotions, then compared the results to employee evaluations. They found that the women who didn’t notice feelings got mainly negative evaluations from their employees, whereas men with the same poor people skills got mostly positive feedback.

Other studies, done in colleges, found that students (especially, but not only, male students) rated their female professors poorly if they did not spend more one-on-one time with their students than male professors. The dynamic is pretty clear: it’s not enough for women to be smart and capable. We have to do more emotional work than men to get the same rewards.

And, not to belabor the point here, but if you think that none of this applies to Hillary – goal-focused, aggressive, decisive, competition-minded Hillary – you’re dreaming.

Hillary’s behavior is no different than that of most white male senators. I have issues with many of her policies, but I don’t see anything about her personality that makes her more offensive than, say, John Kerry. People just seem to hate her because she doesn’t have that caring feminine touch.

I want to live in a world where I can speak my mind – and vote my conscience – without having to worry about whether I’m violating the unspoken laws of my gender. I want to live in a world where people make decisions about their representatives based on how well they do their jobs, and not on their own fears and assumptions about what power ought to look like and who ought to wield it.

I know I don’t live in that world. None of us do. The only option on the table, right now, is to keep examining how these realities inform our reactions. That way, when we do make a decision, we can at least do so in full consciousness of our reasons.

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