Home > 2008 Campaign > By Winnie Okafor–Misogyny in the 2008 Presidential Campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton

By Winnie Okafor–Misogyny in the 2008 Presidential Campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton

In 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton ran for president of the United States of America amidst high levels of political discrimination against her, personally, and against women in politics in general. Her campaign events were constantly raided by observers with differing beliefs about the role of women in society. Some of these observers, judging from the signs held up in protest, believed that a woman did not belong at the podium campaigning for President of the United States, that woman’s place is in the domestic sphere tending to the matters at home. A now-famous sign which read “Iron my shirt,” was held up by a heckler at one of Clinton’s final stops during the New Hampshire primaries [1]. Clearly this sign of protest, one of the few public displays throughout the campaign, was a sign of distaste for Clinton– her person and her politics. Clinton’s response to the New Hampshire heckler was strident as she dismissively noted, “Ah, the signs of sexism still alive and well” [2].

In addition to homemade signs from hecklers, blogs, vlogs and independent websites hosted various offensive signs and posters such as “Bros before hoes,” “Hillary Clinton the Communist Bitch of D.C.,” and pictures of her as a witch flying over the U.S. Capitol on a broom stick. Sexist remarks like these, while uncommon in the popular media, illustrated the shreds of sexism still at work in U.S. presidential politics. Household items like nutcrackers were fashioned after Clinton and sold independently on websites like EBay and Amazon.

Despite humiliating portrayals of Clinton in the media and blogosphere, she was the most successful woman to run for president. Her campaign for president was one of the most formidable campaigns ever run by a woman and she came very close to winning. In her concession speech on June 7th 2008, she remarked that “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it…” [3] While that speech was one of the hardest pieces of public discourse for Hillary supporters to listen to, it was also a speech that signaled unity in the Democratic Party around the nominee Senator Barack Obama. Nonetheless, Clinton did not shy away from addressing the girls and women for whom she worked tirelessly on the campaign, the people for whom she paved a path to the Oval Office.

Okafor HRC

It seems obvious, and perhaps it goes without saying, that the misogynistic images which percolated during Clinton’s campaign contributed to the loss of her credibility with the voting public. In each of the medium(ia) identified above, Clinton was portrayed as the less than ideal candidate whose femininity was different from the norm and therefore frightening, whose experience was controversial and therefore trivialized, and whose sexuality was tamped-down and therefore undesirable. In her book, Men and Women of the Corporation, Rosabeth Kanter identified “four common stereotypes of professional women: seductress or sex object, mother, pet, and iron maiden” [4]. These stereotypes carried with them the stigma of unsuitability for the highest office of the land and the media sought to portray Clinton as each, in turn.

When Robin Givhan, The Washington Post‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion editor, commented on Clinton’s cleavage during a speech on the Senate floor, she opened the door to a whole new level of cultural conversation about women’s bodies and the suitability of that body to be leader of the free world. Givhan noted that, “The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable” [6]. Since Clinton was known for her dark-colored pantsuits, the pink feminine suit she wore to the floor of the senate stirred the imagination and provided fodder for cultural and political commentary. The style of Givhan’s writing was set in an accusatory tone, as if to accuse Clinton of being a woman and thus disqualify her from consideration to be President of the United States.

Was Givhan simply doing her job as fashion critic or was she analyzing Clinton’s couture in accordance with an acceptable mode of dress in order to disqualify her? Comments like Givhan’s were peppered throughout the campaign and were delivered in sometimes more brutal ways. While Clinton was not directly referred to as a sex-object, the sale of the nutcracker which opened its legs wide to crack an assortment of nuts touched on the subject of her sexuality. Through the marketing of this product, Clinton’s toughness and political skill was called into question. As the most experienced of the candidates in the Democratic Party primary, her ability to maneuver the politics of Congress was seen as threatening. Clinton’s political savvy earned her the favorite status even before the election began. So, what better way to highlight the anxiety which her masculine opponents felt than to iconize her as a “nutcracker?” In her piece on “Misogyny I Won’t Miss,” Marie Cocco noted, “I will not miss walking past airport concessions selling the Hillary Nutcracker, a device in which a pantsuit-clad Clinton doll opens her legs to reveal stainless-steel thighs that, well, bust nuts. I won’t miss television and newspaper stories that make light of the novelty item” [6].

In conclusion, while the directive to Clinton to “Iron my shirt” was the height of brutal assaults against her femininity, it pales in comparison to the other misogynistic innuendos about her sexuality. Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign for president of the United States reified many of the negative stereotypes leveled against women who have sought political leadership. Looking forward to the 2016 presidential election, the Ready for Hillary PAC, has been garnering support for another potential run for the presidency. It is my hope that this second go-around will yield a cultural/political climate where Clinton can be viewed as a dynamic, multi-dimensional candidate.

[1] Graham, Nicholas. “Sexist Hecklers Interrupt Hillary: “Iron My Shirt!”” The Huffington Post. 07 January 2008.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Clinton, Hillary. “Hillary Clinton Endorses Barack Obama.” The New York Times. 07 June 2008.
[4] Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. Men and Women of the Corporation. New York: Basic, 1977.
[5] Givhan, Robin. “Hillary Clinton’s Tentative Dip Into New Neckline Territory.” Washington Post. 20 July 2007.
[6] Cocco, Marie. “Misogyny I Won’t Miss.” Washington Post. 15 May 2008.

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Categories: 2008 Campaign
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