Hillary Clinton seemed smug, so there’s no way she can persuade undecided voters.
This thought, a knee-jerk reaction rooted in my own subconscious sexism, immediately came to mind after I watched both U.S. presidential debates.
It’s sexist to think a woman who’s worked in public service for 40 years, and answers every question with almost rote precision, is smug. So, why did I feel this way? It took me a moment to realize that, like many other people in America, I have a problem with strong, competent, ambitious women—especially those who shamelessly embrace these qualities.
Clinton wants to be president, but does she need to be so try-hard about it? Does she need to belittle Republican nominee Donald Trump on national television? Does she have to roll her eyes, and act as if she’s too good to debate a reality TV star who has absolutely no business running? I instinctively understood that Clinton’s smugness wouldn’t endear her to the American public (just another installment in the ongoing saga of: Men can be layered and complex, but women must—under all circumstances—be likable.)
As another strong, competent, ambitious woman, watching Clinton run for president has been both thrilling and uncomfortable. I’ve been disappointed in myself for having sexist reactions whenever she speaks. I count all of Clinton’s ums and ahs, and am more critical of her speech patterns than I’ve ever been with any other presidential nominee. I notice the lines on her face and hate that I do. I automatically judge her outfits, perpetuating an outdated gender norm that women should be valued for their looks above all else. I wonder if the public would like her more if she was hotter, or if she wasn’t so ambitious in her bid for America’s highest office.
Growing up in a patriarchal culture has conditioned me to have these views, so I must make a conscious effort to unlearn them. But at least I’m aware of my biases and can keep them in check. I’m also aware, however, that many people believe their biases. So, no matter how much I fight off my internalized misogyny, I’m still living in a world that wants women to stay small, fragile, and quiet.
The way I and so many Americans feel about Clinton represent my worst fears about myself. Too much of the U.S. just doesn’t like women like us, so when I judge Clinton, I’m also judging myself. It’s uncomfortable to realize that I subscribe to these harmful social norms, and live life through a misogynistic filter.
2016 has been a banner year for exposing what goes on in America’s shadows, and Clinton is a big part of that. Her campaign has shown us that we still have a problem with strong, competent, ambitious women who demand the same opportunities as men.
That’s why I was surprised to discover I still have some lingering feelings of internalized misogyny, which stayed dormant until Clinton did what no other woman has done before. I’ve done a good job of catching myself and reeling in such thoughts before they get out of hand, but we shouldn’t be ashamed of them. It only gets really dangerous when we start believing our biased thinking.
What’s sad is that I’m actually hyper-aware of all the double standards that Clinton faces and how the public perceives her. To be a woman is to invite criticism. Clinton’s campaign has been a constant reminder that no matter how much you achieve as a woman, you can’t win on skill alone. To become president, Clinton must be everything: serious but friendly; prepared but unstudied; strong but not too strong as to emasculate her opponent. She has been interrupted and disrespected and underestimated. Even I—a self-described feminist—can’t help but have sexist thoughts about a woman who has more than earned her place in the Oval Office.
There’s no winning, here, because the game is rigged. If you’ve ever believed that you can be smart enough, talented enough, or experienced enough to transcend your womanhood, Hillary Clinton has proven that wrong. She may have broken through the glass ceiling, but our patriarchal society will keep adding more panes. So, no matter how many times a woman shatters one obstacle, there’ll always be another.
To clear that glass ceiling for good, we must first recognize—then challenge—misogyny in ourselves and others.
Jamie Varon is a writer and designer living in Los Angeles.