Last week Hillary Clinton did something that genuinely startled me. She sat down with Brandon Stanton, the young man behind the wildly popular Instagram/Facebook page Humans of New York, and she told the unvarnished truth.
I don’t expect this from career politicians with international profiles, because part of their job is to excise every trace of vulnerability. It comes with the job.
Still, there she was describing a Harvard Law School entrance exam she had taken in the early 1970s, quietly recalling how she was jeered at by the mostly male candidates who found her presence to be an unspeakable affront.
How dare this soon to be southern housewife take their place in the hallowed halls? Didn’t she know she was upsetting the natural order as well as the mostly male class? They made it quite clear they felt nothing for her but contempt.
To get through it -- this intensely personal and sexist pile on -- she struggled to project an image of cool detachment. She tried to focus on getting through the test in one piece with her dignity intact.
I know a little something about the need to show some steel when completely outnumbered and outranked. In a world where fairness or equality isn’t on the menu, it can get so that your steely public persona becomes like the suit of armor you never leave home without.
Women and gay men know all about it. If heterosexual men tend to walk around as if they owned the streets it’s because in fact they mostly do. Everyone else is there-by-there leave. It’s important to remember this.
Say the wrong thing, wear the wrong thing or hold the wrong hand and watch how quickly you’ll be reminded who’s really the boss. Challenge a leering catcall or reply to a hateful homophobe and violence will be on the menu faster than you can think.
The streets of cyberspace are even more policed. Every woman on Twitter will eventually receive the unasked for attentions of a man who volunteers to tell them what to wear, how to behave, how to express themselves and how not to, in a conscious and unconscious effort to exert control and male dominance.
Every day men all over the world tell women what they can and cannot do, including how to sit, how to speak, where to walk, where not to. They enslave them, effectively. They’re talked about like property.
It’s because some men only feel secure when everyone else is subjugated. It’s only stealing everyone else’s power that they feel they grow their own.
When Barack Obama became president he upended this longstanding contract in a way that many men will never forgive him for. He was seen by many as an interloper, an imposter, an illegitimate leader.
Donald Trump in particular pursued Obama’s birth certificate as though he were a stray dog, not the leader of the free world. Trump’s own rise is explained by the angry protests of men who have seen their traditional power base eroded by this black man’s presidency, because a win for anyone else is always perceived as a loss for them.
The greatest power you can ever have is to decide other people’s destinies for them. Men have been very comfortable doing this for centuries.
Being a woman, Hillary Clinton offers an even deeper, more far-reaching challenge to the traditional American power base. They’re howling with fury because they don’t want to live in a world where they don’t always call the shots.
There’s more to it, of course. The desire for power doesn’t explain away the truly evil and often pointless nature of so much global misogyny. Hatred of women’s bodies, their supposed sinfulness, is as old as time, with almost every major world religious organization pathologizing the very traits that make women human.
To win, Hillary has to show some steel, and then face criticism for being too strong. To win, Hillary has to show her human side and then face criticism for being too weak.
She knows how this game is played. We all do.
“I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional,” she told Stanton. “But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena,” she said.
“And if I create that perception, then I take responsibility. I don’t view myself as cold or unemotional. And neither do my friends. And neither does my family. But if that sometimes is the perception I create, then I can’t blame people for thinking that.”
We should really blame each other. And we should vote to change it this November.