WASHINGTON, D.C. - Hillary Clinton is a presidential candidate, former first lady, twice-elected U.S. senator, ex-secretary of state — and a grandma.
She is not the first candidate with some of those qualifications, including the grandparent part. When President George H.W. Bush — a former congressman, director of the CIA, ambassador and White House wingman — took office he had 12 grandchildren. While Mitt Romney was campaigning, two more grandchildren were added to his brood. Yet Bush and Romney’s roles as gramps were never headline worthy. Grandma Hillary, however, already has become part of the discourse.
Sure, there is a temptation to throw up your hands and decry the patriarchy when Clinton is cast as a scrunchie-wearing grandmother who also happens to be a politician. But as the press and the public become more comfortable seeing women in politics, those overt media missteps are growing scarce. There isn’t much room these days to forgive statements that could’ve been made with a scotch in one hand and a cigar in the other.
In academic studies of the writing that surrounded Clinton in her 2008 campaign, scholars found that gendered language, or writing that is characteristic of one particular gender, surfaced most often through seemingly innocuous semantic choices. Granted, what is or is not sexist is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. And yes, there is the matter of what the writer actually intended. But it’s hard to ignore the contrast in how male and female candidates are portrayed.
In 2009, Diana Carlin and Kelly Winfrey dug into media framing around the 2008 campaigns of Clinton and Sarah Palin. The researchers found that Clinton was often depicted as an iron maiden, a powerful female stereotype originally established by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her 1977 book Men and Women of the Corporation.
The iron maiden frame is exemplified by what Carlin and Winfrey saw as the overuse of masculine traits to describe women, which they found can ultimately diminish a woman’s credibility. When a man uses power, influence and tenacity to run a campaign, it is rarely highlighted as a negative. But in Clinton’s 2008 campaign, descriptors such as “ruthless,” “ice queen” and “formidable” ultimately painted her as power-hungry candidate who was out of her element.
'High-strung' vs. 'powerful'
The Women’s Media Center released research in 2012 that charted the gender differences in words to describe female politicians and those used for their male colleagues. What is an aggressive man? He’s driven. Have you ever heard a man called an ice queen, or even something similar in a masculine form? Probably not, but you may have heard him called commanding or hardworking.
The WMC’s “chart of reversibility” also included these contrasting evaluation terms:
Ultimately, WMC asked news outlets to only use terms that would be considerate for both sexes. For example, if an outlet calls Clinton feisty, it should be comfortable describing Ted Cruz with the same word.
Now, again, these “gendered” words are a little more discrete in their sexism, but a review of more than 300 articles of 2008 newsmagazine coverage of Clinton done for my master's thesis found another problematic issue. In several major weeklies, including Time, Newsweek and US News & World Report, Clinton was sometimes referred to as “Hillary,” breaking style rules typically followed by the news media industry.
At times, this occurred when her husband, former President Bill Clinton, was mentioned in the article. This could have been a choice to add clarity between the two Clintons, but if Bill appeared in the article, he was rarely referred to by his first name.
Candidate Clinton, however, was referred to as “Hillary” in some stories even when her husband didn’t appear in the piece. “Letting Hillary be Hillary,” “What Does Hillary Want?” are both headlines that ran in the top circulating newsmagazines in 2008. It’s hard to imagine a male candidate being referred to by his first name in such established print publications. Not once in the article analysis was there any example of “Barack” or “John.”
Even Clinton’s die-hard supporters are guilty. On March 25, a group of volunteers sworn to call out sexist media coverage of Clinton announced its mission on Twitter.
We are HRC Super Volunteers, We are Legion, We do not allow sexism, We do not forgive words like "polarizing" or "calculating" Expect us.— HRC Super Volunteers (@HRCSuperVols) March 25, 2015
In a kind of an Orwellian move, the group also contacted several journalists, including New York Times political reporter Amy Chozick, with a list of its banned words for Clinton, including “insincere,” “entitled,” “secretive” and “disingenuous.”
A group called HRC Super Volunteers just warned me "We will be watching, reading, listening and protesting coded sexism..." (1/2)— Amy Chozick (@amychozick) March 25, 2015
2/2 Sexist words, they say, include "polarizing, calculating, disingenuous, insincere, ambitious, inevitable, entitled, over confident..."— Amy Chozick (@amychozick) March 25, 2015
Also sexist, according to HRC Super Volunteers: "Secretive" and "will do anything to win, represents the past, out of touch..."— Amy Chozick (@amychozick) March 25, 2015
"You are on notice that we will be watching, reading, listening and protesting coded sexism..." the email reads.— Amy Chozick (@amychozick) March 25, 2015
But for a group that wants to excise sexist coverage of Clinton, it sure does refer to her as “Hillary” a lot. It’s not uncommon for supporters to refer to candidates by first name. Hillary’s campaign organization is dubbed “Hillary for America.”
After Republican hopeful Rand Paul’s announcement last week, he’s been using “stand with Rand” as a slogan. Still, you likely won’t see the press calling him Rand in their write-ups. If the goal is to keep sexism out of political writing, maybe it’d be better for the HRC Super Volunteers to lead by example.
The Super Volunteers did open the door for an interesting conversation, though – does the media really use gendered terms such as “calculating,” “polarizing,” “ambitious,” and “inevitable”? The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake doesn’t think so:
“But do they media actually use these words to describe Clinton? Well, yes, but only if you loosely define ‘the media’ as ‘the conservative media’ and ‘people who don’t like Hillary Clinton.’”
All of those words appeared across Time, Newsweek and US News in the thesis analysis. Those would hardly be considered conservative, nor does the definition of media need to be in the least bit loosened to include them.
There will inevitably be sexist campaign coverage – intentional or otherwise – now that Clinton has finally announced her 2016 bid. References to her pantsuits or hairstyle might be rare, but those inconspicuous words? Not so much.
Abby Johnston is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism and intern at DecodeDC.
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