Our Hillary Clinton Problem

Why are older, elite women voters so ambivalent on Hillary Clinton’s candidacy?

Interview by Katherine Lanpher
Illustration: Philip Burke
It’s about how we visualize people in power. I’ve been in politics all of my life, since I was 9 years old. People often ask me, "Did you have a role model?" I used to say yes. I mean, I had both male and female role models. But as I grew older and became more deeply involved, I learned that my role models were really a bunch of old men. I didn’t see any young women — or women, period — holding power. Today you see women holding power in a number of positions, whether it’s the secretary of state or the 16 women of the U.S. Senate or the speaker of the House. But I believe that this desire for Hillary to be more perfect goes back to who women are as individuals, as people, and often we hold other women to much higher standards.Tannen: That is absolutely right. People expect far more of their mothers than of their fathers, and more of their daughters than of their sons. You know, you want your mother to drop everything, but, well, your father’s busy; he’s got other things to do. I experience that as a female teacher. All female professors experience that. Some students expect us to be everything. Be their friend, be there when they need us, spend hours in the office talking about anything they want, and they don’t expect that of the male professors.Brazile: So is that my problem? [Laughter]Tannen: Have you noticed that as well?Brazile: Yeah! I feel like I have 300 children.Tannen: [Laughs] On some level, people perceive every woman as a receptionist. It doesn’t matter if she’s the president; when they want a pen, they’re going to go ask her for it. She’s supposed to do everything for you.MORE: Does all this "mommy responsibility" play into women’s ambivalence about making it to the top? Tannen: Well, there’s something else at work too. Our images of how a man in authority should behave — in the workplace or in politics — are pretty congruent. If a man seeks to become a person of authority, he is seeking to be both a better leader and a better man. But our expectations for how a woman should be are at odds with how a person in authority should be. To the extent that a woman fulfills what we think a good woman should be, she’s not acting the way we think a leader should act. And if she behaves as we expect a leader to behave, then we don’t like her: She just doesn’t strike us as a good woman. This is a challenge that every woman leader faces. They find many ways of overcoming it, but they have to overcome it. Also, there’s a feeling that ambition is somehow shameful in a woman.Brazile: That’s right.Tannen: Obviously, anybody who is in public life is ambitious, or they wouldn’t be in public life. But it’s seen as slightly unsavory in a woman. There’s often an assumption that if a woman gets to a high position, she must have gotten there by being too tough and mean. I’ve experienced this myself. Early on at academic conferences, I’d meet people and frequently be told, "Oh, you’re so much nicer than I expected." I’d always say, "Why wouldn’t I be nice?" And they’d say, "Well, you’ve published so much."Brazile: I think there’s a fear of being rejected by your peers once you’ve reached a certain status. I speak personally. Throughout the past 15 or 20 years, I was one of the highest-ranking women on Capitol Hill. This was before we had Pelosi and others. I was a chief of staff, working for Dick Gephardt, and I’ll never forget one day when Roll Call published a list of the highest-paid congressional staffers. I was in the top 10. And, for about five minutes, I was embarrassed that I’d made the top 10. Then I thought, well, I’m doing the same work the guys are doing. But at first I didn’t want to be on that list. I didn’t want anybody knowing I had reached that pinnacle. Diverse Women, Diverse OpinionMORE: Let’s go back to the question of class for a moment. The phrase "women in need" has been applied to blue-collar, high-school-educated women who are firmly in Hillary’s camp. What does that tell us? Brazile: From a political standpoint, those are the voters you go after first, because once they make up their minds, they are with you, no matter what happens in the campaign.MORE: Why do they make up their minds so fast?

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