Why you should care
Because that glass ceiling needs more cracks.
When VP wannabe Geraldine Ferraro stepped up as the first female nominee of a major party, the questions came fast and frankly sexist: “Could you push the nuclear button?” they asked her on Meet the Press. “I can do whatever is necessary to protect the security of this country,” Ferraro shot back.
Fast-forward 30-odd years, and America is closer than ever to having its first female commander in chief. More than that: If Hillary Clinton is elected and chooses Michèle Flournoy as her secretary of defense, as has been predicted, something quite remarkable will happen. The two people in charge of a military that is, by most accounts, the world’s most powerful, will be … women.
And there we are again, tripping over that fine line between tough and feminine.
And yet, it’s safe to say that America is probably not quite ready for the possibility. After all, few would ask the Donald whether he had the chutzpah to use nukes — indeed, in his case, there are questions about his having too much, er, chutzpah. Women, on the other hand, are still expected to be pacifists, squeamish about blood and perhaps too empathetic for the blood and guts of national security. “They’ve always been viewed as more caregiving, peace-loving and compassionate,” says Susan Carroll, a politics professor and senior scholar at Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics. These expectations are also reflected in surveys, with polls providing decades’ worth of empirical evidence that women are more reserved about using force than men. Then there are the stereotypes: Women are too emotional, too physically weak, too prone to madness brought on by periods or menopause.
Clinton took steps to acquire the credentials she needed to sidestep this, everything from her extensive international travels as first lady to her serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee and as secretary of state. In doing so, she’s gained the respect of a long list of military brass, says Carroll. “As a candidate, Clinton was very careful never to show any sign of weakness on military and foreign policy issues,” she adds.
I knew it was gonna be hard tonight. But Hillary's known this night was coming for decades. And she's #overprepared just like all women are!— Melinda Byerley ☠️ (@MJB_SF) October 10, 2016
Plus, we knew Clinton was tough back in 2008. Her first attempt to secure the White House “was very much about establishing her as qualified to be commander in chief,” says Carroll. But Clinton’s natural inclination — having voted to authorize war in Iraq and never backing down, despite criticism — is probably in a “more muscular direction in terms of foreign policy and international involvements,” she adds.
Indeed, female leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Clinton, Angela Merkel, Condoleezza Rice or Madeleine Albright, are anything but shrinking violets. After all, the Iron Lady got her nickname by staring down the Soviets, and while unpopular early in her tenure, battling for the Falklands saw her ratings soar. But these women can face their own “double bind,” says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. The dilemma? As a society, we see good women as compassionate, caring and perhaps flashing a nice smile. The terms we associate with good leaders, on the other hand — like aggressive and decisive — make it hard for women to be seen as good at both. “They really can’t satisfy both sides of the bind,” says Bystrom, noting how men are never accused of smiling too little or being overprepared.
So would Clinton be a “hawk” as commander in chief? Carroll says that while Clinton has established her toughness and expertise, she doesn’t expect any major military maneuvers right away. It’s unlikely to be a “radical departure from Obama’s policies, but I think there will be some notable differences,” she says. But criticism may come more readily from the left, she warns, from the “progressive side who may find [Clinton] too muscular for their liking.” Bystrom isn’t so sure. She admits that Clinton is more hawkish than Bernie Sanders, for sure, and perhaps even Trump. But “as a mom and a grandmother, I think she’ll have a certain amount of compassion.” And there we are again, tripping over that fine line between tough and feminine.