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Janet Reno, Hillary Clinton, and the relentless backlash to women in power

Janet Reno broke new ground when she became the first woman to serve as attorney general of the United States.

Her reward was having an oafish man portray her in late-night comedy.

Will Ferrell’s impression of Reno became an easy, if mean, laugh for Saturday Night Live, a way to poke fun at Reno’s closely cropped hair, Coke-bottle glasses, and boxy dresses. It also resonated for another reason. It spoke to what social science research has found again and again: Women leaders most likely to face harassment are those who are perceived to have “masculine personalities.” They face backlash and a barrage of attacks for rejecting expected gender roles.

Reno endured this very experience throughout her tenure as attorney general. Hillary Clinton has faced similar criticisms throughout her career -- from being mocked for her pantsuits to being called cold.

This election cycle, Clinton’s return to the race turned my attention to the flip side. I’ve spent a lot of time reading through the research on the positive effects of having more women in elected office — how it can increase the aspirations that parents have for daughters, and that young girls have for themselves.

It is absolutely necessary to have women in new positions of power; the research makes that clear. At the same time, Reno’s career is a dismaying example of how difficult it can be for the woman who takes the first step — the woman who decides to defy gender norms, and faces a hurtful backlash as a result.

Reno deviated from gender norms. And she faced backlash because of it.

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Women who rise to power tend to face the most pushback and ridicule when they don’t conform to the gender roles we expect.

This was true of Hillary Clinton in the 1990s, the political spouse who continued to work during her husband Bill’s presidential campaign. She faced scrutiny for doing something that was perceived as masculine: pursuing a career independent of her spouse.

Clinton understood this backlash well. When asked about it in 1992, she offered this now-famous response: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession.”

Clinton deviated from gender norms somewhat, but still fulfilled many of the duties that first ladies typically take on. She eventually offered up a chocolate chip cookie recipe to Family Circle magazine for its regular tradition of printing the first lady’s Christmas cookie recipes. She pursued her own causes within the White House — health care becoming her top priority — but also looked the part of first lady at state dinners and holiday parties.

As Peter Beinart noted in a recent piece for the Atlantic, Clinton has tended to be her most popular when she has conformed to gender roles — and least liked when she has strayed.

Reno rose to power around the same time as Clinton. She deviated more from the norms of womanhood than Clinton did. She was unmarried and had no children. She was exceptionally tall — at 6-foot-2, she was the same height as President Clinton. The two stood shoulder to shoulder at the press event held in the White House Rose Garden, to announce her nomination for attorney general, in 1993.

Reno did not look the part of a typical woman — and it became a defining mark of how she was treated.

The dark side of women’s rise to power: a backlash of misogyny

Hillary Clinton Campaigns In Crucial States Ahead Of Tuesday's Presidential Election Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In 2007, a Canadian psychologist named Jennifer Berdahl sent a survey out to hundreds of workers in North America.

She had the workers answer questions about how well certain traits described them. Some of these traits, like warmth and loyalty, are typically associated with women. Others, like assertiveness and willingness to take risks, tend to be associated with men.

Berdahl also asked the participants to talk about their experiences with harassment, whether they’d experienced unwanted remarks or sexual advances in the workplace.

And she found, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, that it wasn’t the women who were especially feminine who experienced the most sexual harassment. Instead, it was the women who had more masculine traits — who deviated from what we think of as feminine — who received the most unwanted advances and remarks.

“This research suggests that acting like ‘one of the boys’ by being assertive and leader-like may not be the best strategy for women who wish to succeed in male-dominated occupations,” Berdahl concluded in that study.

Other studies have come to similarly dismal conclusions. One 2010 study by two Harvard professors looked at how adults reacted to descriptions of male and female politicians seeking more power. They found that power-seeking behavior by women elicited reactions of “contempt, anger and disgust,” a reaction they did not see with male politicians exhibiting the same behavior.

The paradox for women leaders: Be different, but not too different

Breaking a gender barrier, by definition, means doing something that is not typical for a woman. Reno acted in a way that was atypical for a woman by serving as attorney general. Clinton, in becoming a major party presidential nominee, is doing something that we’ve never seen a woman do.

The act of trailblazing can become a difficult tightrope to walk. On the one hand, we celebrate a woman who can act as a role model for young girls — who can show them that women, too, can be great leaders. There is real evidence that young girls think differently about themselves when they see more women in positions of power.

At the same time, we deride and ridicule women who deviate too far from the expected behavior. Women leaders face backlash when they act too much like the men who have risen to power before them, who don’t retain the femininity we expect of all women.

It is a harsh mandate that Reno and Clinton have received: Do something new and different — but don’t be too different from what we expect. Reno crossed that line; she was not what the public expected of a woman. Her legacy is as much a story about showing that women can serve in the same capacity as men as it is a cautionary tale about what happens when their behavior isn’t what decades of norms have taught us to expect.