Humans of New York is known for using photographs and brief interviews to reveal insights about the lives of everyday New Yorkers. But on Thursday, the blog featured a less-than-everyday New Yorker: Hillary Clinton, the state's former US senator.
Clinton's interview response revealed something pretty remarkable, both about her own life and about the challenging gender dynamics of being the first woman running for president as a major party's nominee. She said that she learned long ago as a young woman to "control" her emotions as a way to deal with vitriolic attacks against her — but that now she gets attacked for not being emotional enough.
Clinton recalled taking a law school admissions test with a female friend of hers, where they were some of the only women in the room. She said that when she and her friend were waiting for the test to start, things got ugly. A group of men began to yell things like, "You don’t need to be here," and even, "If you take my spot, I’ll get drafted, and I’ll go to Vietnam, and I'll die."
It was intense. It got very personal. But I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t afford to get distracted because I didn’t want to mess up the test. So I just kept looking down, hoping that the proctor would walk in the room. 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.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena. And if I create that perception, then I take responsibility. I don’t view myself as cold or unemotional. And neither do my friends. And neither does my family. But if that sometimes is the perception I create, then I can’t blame people for thinking that.
Indeed, as Vox's Ezra Klein has explained, Clinton inspires "a rare loyalty" among those who know her well, but a wary distrust among a general public that sees her as "careful, calculated, cautious."
One reason people see Clinton this way on the campaign trail in particular, Klein argues, is that the American presidency itself is highly gendered. Not only do people associate the presidency with male leadership, but the campaign trail also rewards more stereotypically masculine skills in presidential candidates — charismatic speaking, assertiveness, and so on. That presents a challenge for Clinton, whose leadership style is much more focused on "listening" and other traditionally feminine skills, and it means that a campaign is a bad way to get a real sense of her personality.
In addition to that, though, social science research shows that women are judged most harshly when they violate expected gender norms.
To get to this point, Clinton has conducted her career in mostly male-dominated spaces and has worked hard not to appear "weak," a trait often associated with femininity. But since people don't expect women to be hard, assertive, or unemotional, Clinton can expect to be harshly judged for those qualities.
Clinton is also doing something that no woman has ever done before at this level — which is pretty much the definition of breaking expected gender norms.
It's hard enough to face the social stigma that often comes with norm-breaking. But the extra challenge is that when you break norms, the burden is on you to create new ones.
"If you want to run for the Senate, or run for the Presidency, most of your role models are going to be men," Clinton told Humans of New York. "And what works for them won’t work for you. Women are seen through a different lens. It’s not bad. It’s just a fact."
"Just a fact" or no, though, Clinton also said she wishes she could be as loud and animated as men without getting scrutinized for it:
I’ll go to these events and there will be men speaking before me, and they’ll be pounding the message, and screaming about how we need to win the election. And people will love it. And I want to do the same thing. Because I care about this stuff. But I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’ Which is funny, because I’m always convinced that the people in the front row are loving it.
"I’m not Barack Obama. I’m not Bill Clinton," Clinton told Humans of New York. "Both of them carry themselves with a naturalness that is very appealing to audiences. But I’m married to one and I’ve worked for the other, so I know how hard they work at being natural."
And as a woman, Clinton has to work even harder.