Clinton’s Pantsuit: The Guarantee of Sexism at Tonight’s Debate

by | Sep 26, 2016 | Faith & Politics, In the News, Sexuality

For tonight’s presidential debate, I can guarantee America will be talking about one thing: Hillary Clinton’s outfit. Especially if it’s a pantsuit.

And I can guarantee American will not be talking about one thing: Donald Trump’s outfit. Because it will be a suit.

It all comes down to one word: sexism.

Pantsuits aren’t the only sexism that Mrs. Clinton has faced. Take the following:

“I hate Hillary Clinton.”

“She is cold and calculated.”

I’ve heard this refrain repeatedly over the course of the election cycle, and have been trying to understand its source. How did this former Secretary of State, so popular just years before, suddenly become so disliked? David Brooks suggests it’s because since we mostly know about her through her career, she appears to be a “workaholic.”  A Yale researchers study suggested the reason people don’t like her is because they perceive her as “cold and calculated,” and well let’s face it – we prefer warm and personable.

Both the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton are far from being perfect. That being said – she’s a politician. Politicians calculate their decisions to win an election – especially the presidential election.  If they are good politicians, they work hard and generate calculated policies that are aimed at serving the electorate in the best way possible.

The Washington Post offers a different interpretation. They suggest Mrs. Clinton has faced multiple character attacks rooted in sexism. So perhaps her perceived coldness is an intentional strategy for Mrs. Clinton to avoid the effects of sexism in our country.

That’s exactly what Mrs. Clinton recently told the blog Humans of New York (HONY). In the blog, she recalls the story of taking a test to get into law school. In the exam room, as she prepared for the exam to begin, the male students yelled sexist comments at her. In her own words, she says,

I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t afford to get distracted because I didn’t want to mess up the test. I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’

Mrs. Clinton is saying that, for her to participate in male dominant fields like law and politics, she’s created a perception of herself as cold and calculated – so that she might shield herself from being affected personally and professionally by sexist comments that are thrown at her. She’s even tried to act like charismatic men on the campaign train – which, she told HONY, also backfires on her. She faces gender critiques whatever her strategy is. For example, Donald Trump said that if she “were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote.”

If the Washington Post is right, I’m left wondering who the sexists are. Certainly not me. And yet, after her HONY interviews, I stopped to ask myself: am I holding her to standards to which I don’t hold male politicians like George Bush or Barack Obama? Do I ask questions about her that I don’t ask about them?

And the answer for me lies case in point during tonight’s debate: fashion.

I, like the media, am constantly analyzing her look. The Atlantic argues that I’m not the only one to do this. Mrs. Clinton faces a “collision of forces – the dynamics of celebrity, the dynamics of gender—has been particularly defining when it comes to her portrayal in the media. For her, the talk about clothes—the policing of her appearance—has been a conversation rather than a side note.” It’s hard to argue with their point. The pantsuit is boring. And yet, it’s common to mock her appearance in yet another pantsuit. I wonder how many hits a website of George Bush pantsuits would yield. I’m guessing zero. And the only discussion of Donald Trump pantsuits are the one’s he’s manufacturing and selling. If a woman wears a suit, she is judged. If a man does or makes a suit, it’s just business. For him, business as usual.

So what if I think about what Hillary Clinton is wearing when she walks into the room? I also think of Nikki Haley and Condoleezza Rice’s outfits. But that’s the exact point: I’m not thinking about, writing about, reading about the clothing choices of our male politicians – who by the way wear suits, not pantsuits – another gendered distinction. I suspect this distinction points to the fact that men wear suits, but women are expected to wear dresses. By defining an outfit as a pantsuit, her deviance from the norm is highlighted.

The point is that even in someone who cares about equality for women, even I objectify Mrs. Clinton’s appearance and scrutinize color choices or the aesthetics of her jewelry choices. Like my own racial inner prejudices, I think differently about male and female politicians – even on a topic as trivial as clothing. And that affects how I think about Mrs. Clinton versus other male politicians.

* * *

And here I face a sad realization: I’ve just touched the surface of my gender assumptions and prejudices.

Given these prejudices, perhaps we take Mrs. Clinton at her word when she says she’s had to develop an attitude to combat a media and culture that struggles to accept a powerful woman. Whether it’s jeering comments during the law school exam, debates about her personal decisions to remain married to Bill after the affair, or hyper-attention to her clothing choices, she and other women have had to combat sexism without sexists – that is, American sexism in which the majority of us claim not to be sexist.

“It can be easy to think of bias and racism in absolute terms. You’re either racist or you’re not,” writes Daniel Bush of PBS Newshour.  But biases operate in subjective judgments about the people we see on the street – whether we consciously hate a group. Like sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva, who suggests that racism exists in our country now through unrecognized internal messages inside us, so too I unfortunately hold views about gender that reinforce a turn to women’s fashion. These cues are the same cues that prompt others to assume Mrs. Clinton is cold and calculated. Because, like race, these stereotypes exist without my recognition, they take on a life of their own – influencing all of us in society.

Thus, sexism persists and, like race, it influences both our understandings of gender in society and what a good politician should be. The ceiling has eighteen million cracks in it. Whether we like her or not, our call is to challenge the sexism within us, the sexism that forces Mrs. Clinton to “take responsibility” for her cold, calculated personality. Or, in other words, for being a woman in a sexist society



Cover image compilation of images courtesy FlickrCC users atlanticcouncil, osloraadhus, and kabulpublicdiplomacy.


Lucas Sharma, SJ   /   All posts by Lucas