Hillary, Gender, and Trust - By Bernie Mayer

“All lying in politics is not created equal. I think the ideology Bernie is selling is fanciful, but underlying it is a moral critique of modern capitalism that has merit and deserves to be heard. But Bernie is not being truthful about the costs. What is grating about Hillary is that her prevarications seem so unnecessary and often insult our intelligence. But they are not about existential issues. As for Trump, his lies are industrial size and often contradict each other. But there is no theory behind his lies, except what will advance him, which is why Trump is only scary if he wins. Otherwise, his candidacy will leave no ideas behind. It will just be a reality TV show that got canceled. “   Tom Friedman, June 1, 2016. [1]

Is Hillary crooked?  Dishonest?  Manipulative? Untrustworthy?  And is she more so than other candidates?  Or is she being held to a different set of standards, at least in part because of gender?   This is an absolutely core question for this election, and if she is elected I suspect it will be for her presidency. 

Clearly, Hillary is careful, parses her words in a way that is both lawyerly and at times self-destructive.  She has a way of responding to attacks that tend to keep the issues alive, rather than shutting them down.  But on the other hand, her long and very public career has been characterized by far more steadfastness in support of her fundamental principles than inconsistency.  We may, as I do, disagree with many of these principles—her hawkishness, her uncritical support of Israel, her belief in the ultimate power of capitalism and of our political system to fix the problems they have created, but these are not new or different positions.  They have been her guiding principles throughout her political career--as has been her support for women, children, families, and access to medical care.  I have no doubt that she will bring those values to the presidency if she gets elected. I do not think she will surprise us with major departures from the principles she has supported and the positions she has taken throughout her career.

By most objective measures, Hillary is relatively truthful.  PolitiFact, the fact checking website, rates her as the most honest of the three remaining candidates (although Bernie Sanders is a close second).  One can argue with their methodology, but the point is that public perception of her (dis)honesty seems out of synch with the reality here.

So why is it that so many people, and especially so many young people, and very especially so many young women, don’t trust her?   I understand why they might disagree with her, but why don’t they trust her?  And why is it that Trump’s schoolyard taunts about her being crooked seem to stick?

Gender has to be part of the answer, but before I go there, let me suggest several other reasons:

  • Hillary has been around a long time and has made many political and policy decisions that were more practical then principled.  This is the nature of politics, even though politicians may try to characterize themselves as unwilling to compromise on their beliefs. In order to get things done, to avoid gridlock, compromises are essential.  We can’t really be principled without sometimes compromising on our principles—this is an inherent paradox of politics and life. But sometimes those compromises are especially unprincipled or distasteful—and the longer someone has been a public political figure, the more likely it is that they have at times compromised on core principles.  Herein lies both the appeal, and the limit, of Bernie’s call of a political revolution.

  • There is a negative synergy between her and her husband on the trust issue.  Bill Clinton was immensely popular when he left office (and has largely remained so), but he was also perceived as untrustworthy and as prone to using carefully chosen, misleading statements (or outright lies) when confronted about his actions. (“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”)   

  • She has been attacked so much and for so long that her natural instincts are to avoid, to duck, and to be oh so careful. When challenged about questionable actions, she is prone to deny, minimize or misdirect. She has tried her very best not to engage with the email server controversy or with the concerns about the large speaking fees she has received from Wall Street firms.  When she has been forced to engaged with these, she has minimized the seriousness of people’s concerns and implied the attacks were just political gamesmanship.  This has not served her well.  She had ended up seeming defensive, withholding, and elusive.   But on the other hand—

  • There is no question that she has been subjected to an inordinate amount of investigations motivated primarily by a desire to discredit her.  And the cumulative effect of these has been to raise people’s suspicions about her character.  At the same time these endless investigations have much less effective in discrediting her husband—and there is no doubt that this disparity is gender related.  He gets a pass, even though he has often been the main actor.  She does not.


There are many factors contributing to a perception of Hillary as dishonest, unlikeable, and untrustworthy.  But let’s be clear--gender is an essential part of the picture.  Hillary has been cast as a “scheming woman”, and this trope goes back to the Book of Genesis.  Why is she, for example, so much more unpopular than her husband, who was the source of many of the policies and scandals that she is being held to account for? Why do these insinuations adhere to her so strongly, especially when the issues are not very significant and her role in them minimal or even non-existent?  And why is the focus not on her judgment (why would she take those speaking fees when she was planning to run for president?), but on her honesty?

Traits that are seen as desirable in men are not seen as desirable in women.  If a male is strong, tough, and strategic, a female is pushy, cold, and calculating.  If a man expresses righteous anger, determination, and focus, a woman is viewed as rigid, shrewish, and self-promoting.  Women are by no means more emotional then men, but the emotions that are normative for them to express are very different.  If a women expresses sadness, fear, upset, joy, or excitement, that is fine – but the expression of anger, disapproval, self-confidence, or disgust are the normative purview of men.  The problem is that the emotional space reserved for leaders, the emotions we expect them to demonstrate, are much more male than female. This is deeply bred into our political culture. And our emotional assessment and reaction to candidates is as important as our assessment of their policies.  So a female candidate has to find a way of showing the emotional characteristics that we expect of leaders, and still remain in the normative space we have created for women.  This is no easy task. 

This challenge for Hillary and other women running for high office is compounded when they have to respond to attacks that are grounded in an emotional range that women are not supposed to occupy.  So Bernie can get righteously angry at Hillary—and seem genuine and likeable - but were she to respond in kind, she would seem aggressive (or substitute any number of misogynist terms here) and manipulative.  Yet if she does not respond with emotional authenticity, she seems cold and uninvolved.  And if she were to respond within the range of accepted female responses, for example by getting visibly distressed or upset, she would be seen as weak and incapable of leadership.

Of course, women do overcome these challenges.  Many point to Elizabeth Warren as an example of a woman who is able to be tough, assertive, and angry when necessary without apparently arousing the same suspicions. Or consider, for example, Sonia Sotomayor or Condoleeza Rice, both of whom also had to contend with racial stereotypes.  But each – including Hillary - has had to deal with challenges that men in their positions would not have to face.  And Hillary has had to do this for a lot longer and with a far more intense spotlight on her.

There is a further gendered factor in play here.  Despite all of her achievements, her obvious competence and her intellect, Hillary first came to prominence as a spouse of a successful (and natural) politician.  She has since achieved independent success as a Senator, Secretary of State, and presidential candidate (in fact she was quite successful although less prominent much earlier—as a congressional staffer and a lawyer), but the suspicion will always be there that her rise towards the pinnacle of power has been achieved on the coattails of her husband.  There is nothing she will ever be able to do to overcome this—even if she is a successful two-term President.

I have heard from many people who say they dislike (not just disagree with) Hillary, not because of her gender but because of her politics and past actions.  I have major disagreements with her about her politics and policies, and we must all make our own judgments about people based on whatever factors seem relevant to us. But let’s not kid ourselves that we can extract gender from our judgment.  It’s simply not possible, because our attitudes about gender have been inculcated in us from the earliest moments of our lives, and recognizing them is a lifelong challenge.  We are mostly unaware of the gender frame that we inevitably view the world through. So whenever someone says that their feelings about Hillary have nothing to do with her gender, I just want to shake my head.

Which leads to the obvious question you should be asking:  what is an older white male (ok—not quite as old as that Bernie, but I’m working on it) doing talking about the impact of gender?  Clearly I have a skewed and limited view on this issue.  We all do.  But I think it is gender bias to argue that taking on this issue is something that only women should do—or can do.  Obviously, my sense of all this is based on who I am.  The focus here, to be clear, is not on what the experience of being subject to these gender limits and stereotypes is, but how they infuse our thinking and how seldom we are aware of this—and this is true of both men and women.  But still, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah (look it up) for me to do this. 

I am doing it because I believe this is an issue that anyone serious about the political process, and this election in particular, should squarely confront. We should all criticize her politics, her judgment, even her temperament in accordance with our own beliefs and judgment.  But calling into question her basic honesty or trustworthiness—more than that of others running for office? Despite the evidence to the contrary? When we start doing that, it’s time to look at ourselves.[2]

[1] Friedman, T.  “Politicians and the Lies that Matter.” NY Times, June 1, 2016

[2] Thanks to my wife, Julie Macfarlane, and my colleague Palma Strand, for their valuable insights about this issue.


This blog post is part of the Staying w/Conflict - Election Edition 2016 series. Please check out the entire series by visiting the series homepage:http://www.adrhub.com/page/staying-w-conflict-2016

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Interesting, truthful and thought provoking. Well said.


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