National Women's Political Caucus of Washington

Madame President: Hillary Clinton, gender, and the general election

hillary_clinton.jpgBy Kiana Scott


Hillary Clinton is suddenly bringing gender, subtly and explicitly, into the 2016 presidential election.  Today, Clinton has nailed a balance that she has previously struggled to stick—inspiring supporters with her public communication and rhetoric, and embracing the impact of her gender in this historic, groundbreaking moment.

At about 5:00 am Pacific Standard Time on June 7, 2016, Clinton’s campaign sent a message to supporters via Twitter: a photo of Clinton smiling with the words “I’m with her,” the campaign’s tagline, on the image, with the text “RT [retweet] if you’re ready to make history.”  Five hours later the campaign (tweets written by Clinton herself as signed with her initials) sent another message: another image of a calm, smiling Clinton with her own quote “If we can blast 50 women into space, we will someday launch a woman into the White House, Hillary Clinton, June 7, 2008” and the text “Eight years ago today.”  


Several hours later, about four hours before polls close in California, her campaign released the video that would introduce her at that night’s rally in Brooklyn.  Over two minutes long, it begins with film footage of protests and marches, almost exclusively featuring women and girls, with texts from well-known feminist addresses—“After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did.  She just did it backwards and in high heels,” and “The women’s liberation movement is about equal opportunity.”  Images and video of young, politically engaged women cut between shots of Hillary Clinton walking through a door, up a flight of stairs, and onto a stage before a rally.  It ends with slow black and white shots of a microphone before a smiling image of Clinton and the words “Let’s keep making history.”  


The first time I watched it, immediately after the campaign released the video via Twitter, I cried.  When I watched it again, moments before Clinton addressed the crowd in Brooklyn upon clinching the Democratic nomination, I cried again.  


This is Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee in American history.


As she breaks the glass ceiling she cracked in 2008, Clinton is publicly approaching what it means to be a female presidential candidate differently than she did in her previous presidential bid.  Gender is, now, a significant and central part of her conversation.  


In 2007, when Clinton announced her candidacy by video, she did not mention gender at all, beyond her strong record of fighting for women’s rights and reproductive rights.  Someone reading the text of her speech would have had no clue that she was a woman.  Many writers (including Rebecca Traister’s searing “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and Ann Kornblut’s “Notes From the Cracked Ceiling”) argued that ignoring gender, and not explicitly connecting with audiences around her historic run, would hurt her campaign.  Her concession speech in 2008 finally touched on gender with her memorable “18 million cracks in this highest, hardest glass ceiling” but it was too little, too late.  While no one can say for certainty what lost Clinton the 2008 Democratic primary, her refusal to discuss gender was very likely a factor.  


This time around, Clinton has referred to her gender both implicitly and explicitly, and has done so with frequency.  Her subtle inclusion of gender is impactful.  She mentioned her mother extensively in her announcement speech in June 2015, both as a narrative device and as inspiration.  As Sheryl Cunningham and others mention in their 2013 analysis of the 2004 Democratic National Convention, fathers and grandfathers—paternal history—dominated family stories given by (male) speakers.  At her announcement speech, on the other hand, Clinton mentioned her mother, daughter and granddaughter repeatedly, but not her father, and she mentioned her husband only as a former president, without any reference to their relationship.  Unlike previous candidates, Clinton presents her personal narrative as matrilineal.  In a fundraising email sent to supporters prior to her speech, Clinton again invoked her mother, and again put both her own gender and women more broadly at the center of her campaign.  Gender has been implicitly important from the beginning of her campaign.  


She has also begun to use explicit language about the importance of gender in this campaign.  At that same announcement speech, she said, “ I may not be the youngest candidate in this race.  But I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States!  And the first grandmother as well.”  A stranger reading that speech would know that Hillary Clinton is a woman, and also know that “women’s issues”—family leave, wage equality, reproductive rights—are important policy areas for her presidential campaign.  Clearly Clinton has embraced gender in her 2016 campaign, and has realized that public communications about gender have significant value for her campaign.  


On June 7, 2016, Hillary Clinton effectively won the Democratic nomination, a milestone that will become official at the Democratic National Convention in this week.  And she did so loudly and proudly, while embracing her gender.  From the beginning of her speech, immediately after showing the video connecting her to the history of feminist achievements, she explicitly communicated about gender with the words: “Thanks to you, we’re reached a milestone: the first time in our nation’s history that a woman will be a major party’s nominee.”  She anchored her speech, delivered in New York State, at the Seneca Falls Convention.  Again, she referred to her mother repeatedly—and her daughter Chelsea was the first person she hugged after her speech, followed by her husband Bill.  Her first mention of her general election opponent referred to him as “a man who demeans women.”  Clinton, a fighter, is coming out swinging.


This milestone is important, and the huge role of gender in Clinton’s communications has real and important implications for the remaining five months of this presidential election—and beyond.  Every moment in American political campaigns count, but some count more than others, and every step Hillary Clinton takes from here until November 8th will be breaking new ground, creating new paths, and yes, shattering glass ceilings.  In 1995, then First Lady Hillary Clinton gave a historic speech on women’s rights in Beijing.  When crafting her message, she told staff that she wanted to “push the envelope as far as I can on behalf of women and girls.”  She wanted her speech to be “simple, vivid, and strong in its message that women’s rights are not separate from or a subsidiary of the human rights experience.”  On June 7, 2016, while acknowledging that she passed a tremendous hurdle, she delivered a simple, vivid, strong message, with gender at the foreground.   


Clinton has embraced the historic and symbolic nature of her campaign, and the historic and symbolic role that means she has to occupy.  Just as Barack Obama, also a breaker of glass ceilings, has done, she has begun to embrace this platform, and the megaphone it provides.  Her communication, and specifically her communication around gender, reflects this change, and will continue to develop in the next five months.  She is faced with significant discursive challenges to come: how to apologize without creating weaknesses, how to continue to bring gender into this campaign, and how to perform femininity in a role that has always demanded performed masculinity.  But she has found a communication approach that tells her story, that resonates with voters, and that, like Obama before her, gives her a symbolic status that is larger than any one person.  Clinton ended tonight with these words that show she has more ground to cover, and more to accomplish: “There are still ceilings to break.”  


Bring it on, general election. 


Kiana Scott is an NWPC-WA Board Member and PhD candidate at the University of Washington studying the role of gender in the 2016 election.

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