To 'Humanize' Women in Politics is to Place Them Squarely in Their Gender Roles
July’s Democratic National Convention signaled a significant shift in the Democratic Party’s campaign. While the Party platform remained progressive, the convention’s rhetorical tendencies reflected a nosedive to the center. Apace with the adoption of vapid nationalism was the Democratic embrace of yet another motif commonly associated with the Republican Party: gender roles. In an appeal to a distrustful electorate, Democrats embarked on a mission to ‘humanize’ Hillary Clinton. Humanity, so it seems, is in the gender roles.
I cried when Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination—it truly was a “moon landing” of sorts for women. But I cringed during former president Bill Clinton’s forty-minute boy-meets-girl chronicle. And I cringed once more when Chelsea Clinton softened her mother as ‘Hillary the mother’, who indulges in the film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and ‘Hillary the grandmother’, who reads Thomas the Tank Engine to her granddaughter before speeches.
These attempts to ‘humanize’ Hillary Clinton only served to reinforce a narrative that feminists despise: women in their own right do not matter; they lack full personhood. Women derive their humanity via relationality—as mother and wife, sister and daughter. This narrative is frequently (and problematically) employed in appeals for women’s rights. It’s a broken record: Men should concern themselves with the prevention of sexual assault, for example, because doing so doesn’t just protect any woman, but one’s mother, one’s sister, or one’s daughter. They matter insofar as they’re an extension of you.
Additionally, lest we forget, Hillary Clinton’s role as loving grandmother and admirer of Pride and Prejudice reminds us that women must be warm and not cold—but not too ‘hot’ either, as has been indicated to Melania Trump.
For Hillary Clinton to leave marriage and motherhood out of the spotlight, effectively eschewing gender roles, was a strategy (or lack thereof) that the Party predicted would fail in the general election. Perhaps unknowingly, the Democratic Party’s choice to ‘humanize’ Clinton by forcing her to keep one foot in the domestic realm also gave weight to the old sexist dictum (and theme of this election season) that women are not trustworthy—especially when they are neither wife nor mother.
To some, this may sound like a tired iteration of ‘the woman card’. However, a side-by-side comparison of the Trump children’s speeches—and even Michelle Obama’s 2008 DNC speech—with those of Bill and Chelsea Clinton is revealing. The speeches of the former were vastly more political than those of the latter. Ivanka Trump attempted to shore up the votes of the few women left in her father’s constituency, complete with (empty) promises of policy. Donald Trump Jr. largely criticized Democrats. Both championed Donald Trump ‘the businessman.’ Likewise, in 2008, Michelle Obama spent far more time conveying Barack Obama’s commitment to working people than emphasizing his role as a father.
It’s arguable, and likely even correct, that the contrast between the speeches listed above was intentional. The Democratic Party utilized its convention to stage a radical departure from the extreme politicking that characterized the race to that point. This rush to the center may prove to be a wise strategy in the months to come. However, we shouldn’t be slow to ask what its cost will be. For women, it’s clear. The DNC taught us that the electorate’s issue with Hillary Clinton was never that she wasn’t ‘human’ enough, but that her she didn’t fit comfortably and obviously into the gender roles by which too many voters still wish her to be confined.
But perhaps we should solicit evidence of the humanity of those who question that of Clinton. For the reasons listed above, discussions about Hillary Clinton lacking ‘humanity’ will always be gendered. If we factor out gender from voters’ concerns with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, we’re left with a different, more pertinent question: relatability, not humanness. Relatability (though by no means a perfect term) elicits discussions of class, privilege, race, power and complicity with a system that so many seem to hate. These discussions are valid, though likely late in this race and in most. Very few politicians are relatable to large swathes of the population. However, with an eye to the future, an intersectional understanding of what it means to be ‘relatable’ could help us reform our political system. But, right now, when women exist only as relations and not as individuals, and only as hot or cold, humanizing women in politics has nothing to do with being human.