clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Democratic Convention made the case for women's leadership styles

Democratic National Convention: Day Four Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

One chief aim of the Democratic National Convention was to humanize Hillary Clinton. Another was to convince America that she'd be a great president because of how hard she works and how good she is at getting things done.

It’s tough to do both of these things at once, especially for a woman in politics, and especially for this particular woman in politics. As Vox’s Ezra Klein pointed out in a profile of Clinton’s "listening" leadership style, presidential campaigns are built to favor the charismatic speeches and cults of personality more typically associated with men. But Clinton’s greatest asset as a politician is her ability to build relationships and coalitions — a task that’s less publicly visible, and also more stereotypically feminine.

Luckily for Clinton, though, political conventions are structured to favor a candidate’s relationships with others, given how much time is devoted to letting other speakers praise the candidate. And at the DNC, most of those speakers focused on making Clinton’s work — and the often-invisible work of women in general — both visible and emotionally resonant.

The challenge of making work feel inspirational

The idea of "hard work" isn't an emotional driver for most people, and the most common critiques you hear of Clinton are emotional ones. People don't connect with her. They don't feel she's trustworthy. She just seems cold and calculating. And while Clinton herself acknowledges she’s not the most captivating speaker, many commentators act like oratory is the only way out of her "likability" problem — if only she were a better speaker, less loud, less "shrill."

There is a lot of insidious sexism in critiques of how women come across or present themselves, and that’s hard to overcome. So you could say that instead of public speaking, this DNC was about public doing — putting the spotlight on Clinton’s often behind-the-scenes work and its impacts on real people’s lives. And it was about leaning into the emotional depth of those impacts.

We heard a lot of heartfelt speeches from disability and children’s rights advocates, highlighting the amount of time and energy Clinton spent working on those issues during her career. Clinton’s former colleagues in the Senate praised the way she worked with them. Grieving mothers added emotional weight to the issues of gun control and racial justice that Clinton has been speaking about on the campaign trail.

These kinds of speakers were the "show" to Bill Clinton’s "tell." He told personal stories about his relationship with Hillary and interwove them with policy stories about the things Hillary got done and why she did them. He focused on the people she helped, and the personal, moral drive Hillary felt to help them.

And "moral" is really a key word here. The last day of the convention also featured the powerful oration of Rev. William Barber, the leader of the Moral Mondays movement to restore voting rights and fight other regressive policies in the South. Clinton talked in her speech about how her Methodist faith informed her drive to public service. And in a video clip about standing up to bullies, Clinton brought up a moral theme she has mentioned often, which is that we need more "love and kindness" in our politics. (The video spots featuring Clinton on night four of the convention were all emotional home-runs, especially the main feature produced by Shonda Rhimes.)

Chelsea Clinton’s speech talked a lot about her mother’s love and kindness, but with a focus on what her mom did for her — leaving notes when she was out of town, being "always there" for Chelsea, taking her to see the dinosaurs, challenging her intellectually. "That feeling of being valued and loved — that is what my mom wants for every child. It is the calling of her life," Chelsea said.

Valuing families — and the work women do for them

Both Chelsea’s and Bill’s speeches hammered home not just how important motherhood has been for Hillary, but also how much work it was. "Through nursing school, kindergarten, T-ball, soccer, volleyball ... from Halloween parties in the neighborhood to a Viennese waltz gala in the White House, Hillary first and foremost was a mother," Bill said.

Society often takes that kind of work for granted, though. If feminine leadership styles like Hillary’s are often invisible, with their quiet focus on consensus and relationship-building, the leadership of motherhood can be even more invisible. You’re running a household, not a company and certainly not a country.

The invisibility of this work is probably one reason why America has such atrocious policies for mothers who also work outside the home — no guaranteed paid maternity leave, absurdly expensive child care, a general failure to acknowledge that "workers" are also "people" who have families and lives.

Clinton has made it a centerpiece of her campaign to improve workplace policies for women and mothers, and issues like paid leave, equal pay for women, and affordable child care were centered at the convention. Indeed, the convention was thick with the theme of mothers and children in general — almost overly so. As my colleague Todd VanDer Werff noted, Democrats seemed to be claiming the mantle of "family values," along with other typically-conservative themes like faith and patriotism. It was enough to make you wonder how far we’ve really come on gender issues if we still insist on defining our first major woman presidential nominee by her status as a mother.

The thing is, though, family and motherhood is incredibly important to many women. And Hillary really does seem to value family — both her own and others’, as her career-long focus on women’s and children’s issues suggests. The progressive vision of "family values" isn’t about pressuring women to have families, or not to have them, or to occupy a particular role in them. It’s about dignifying the work people, especially women, have to do when they choose to build and maintain a family, and it’s about making sure society treats families with dignity.

To a certain extent, it felt like Hillary Clinton was turning into the sexist skid at the Democratic National Convention. If people punish women for assertiveness, maybe she’ll embrace softness. If society defines women as mothers, fine, here’s a firehose of family sentiment.

But it also felt like Clinton’s convention was pushing for the value of femininity itself. To say that it’s a good thing to be maternal, to be emotional, to be collaborative; to be humble and value community instead of bombastically valuing oneself (like certain toxically masculine opponents). To say that there’s great power in a more feminine approach. To say that it’s time to value listening more than speaking, but also time for women to be heard.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.