Hillary Clinton is changing the face of women in politics, says Emily RobbBrett Weinstein

Reading back over the transcript of Wednesday’s third US presidential debate, Donald Trump’s “such a nasty woman” remark glares out at me. Small and smug, it sits there intrusively amid Clinton’s discussion of social security, a vial of poison leaking through her words and tarnishing them, once again, with the stain of misogyny.

‘Nasty’ catches in the throat like a rasp, an irritation, and hisses there venomously. To be nasty is to be unpleasant to the point of repulsion. It reminds us of its sibling – ‘nice’: that placid, simpering, bland box that we’re told women fit so perfectly into. Trump didn’t just call Hillary nasty, he called her a nasty woman. Her nastiness pivoted around its being incongruous with her femininity, around its destruction of the ‘niceness’ she should have spent her life oozing, rather than shaking men’s conceptions of their own superiority by running for president. Virginia Woolf wrote that, when man criticises the work of women, he is “concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority”. In Donald Trump’s misogyny nothing could be so clear.

By hitting Clinton with empty exhortations like “such a nasty woman”, the Republican candidate roots his criticism and self-defence in nothing but a contrast between his gender and hers. He is frustrated by her competence, by her experience and so with nothing of substance to retort – no rational, political grounds on which to defend himself – he instinctively takes aim by reducing her to an infamous trope: the disobedient, troublesome woman. The woman who does not, like him, belong.

The political world has long fallen back on a sickening maze of double standards that defend man’s right to dominate politics, and woman’s supposed unsuitability for it. By creating an impossible checklist of paradoxical conditions which women can never truly fulfil, governments have, self-consciously or not, protected their patriarchal core – masculinising concepts such as power, authority and debate to the extent where women struggle to find a place where they will not be criticised on the basis of their gender. If Clinton attempts to exert authority, calling out an opponent or promoting herself, she is obnoxious, loud and nasty. If she does none of these things, she’s too shy, too weak or too nice.

The same has never applied to men, the makers of the rules. Men shout and we call it debating. In a crowded room, Hillary Clinton raises her voice a single decibel to talk about gun law and critics hound her for being “unrelaxed in the way she is communicating”. Donald Trump, although widely ridiculed, is by and large assessed and criticised as an individual person. Hillary, comparatively, is considered as wife, first and foremost, with Trump infamously degrading her suitability for the role of president on the basis that, “if [she] can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?”

So skewed are public expectations for women in power that Clinton managed to stand with pneumonia through two hours of a 9/11 memorial service, take a brief break at her daughter’s home before resiliently returning to work and still be attacked for weakness, rather than heralded for strength. Nothing signifies more aptly the state of our gendered political world than a media who will give infinite air time to footage of Hillary collapsing, while providing only limited coverage of the questionable legitimacy and authority of Trump’s own medical letter.

Toeing the line between nasty and nice has always been an impossible minefield for women who attempt to navigate their way through the male-dominated halls of politics. We can see it everywhere throughout history, from Queen Elizabeth I’s defence: “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too”, to Margaret Thatcher taking elocution lessons to deepen her voice, while distancing herself from the women’s rights movement. It all boils down to this: women in power flee from their gender for fear of it disadvantaging them. To play the man’s game, one must dress the part and talk the talk.

But that isn’t entirely how Hillary Clinton has done it, and it is this innovation – her attempt to degender politics – which makes lingering champions of the patriarchal American Dream, like Trump, uncomfortable. Where traditionally masculine politics has placed huge emphasis on rhetorical command, absolute conviction and domineering presence, Hillary has sought to undo this, placing focus on the electorate – on the voices and opinions of the people, rather than solely on her own cemented views.

As Ezra Klein wrote in an article for Vox, the idea of complimenting her based on her ability to listen initially feels patronising and heavily gendered, like “a caricature of what we would say about a female politician”. However, on closer inspection, Clinton’s ‘listening tours’ – established when she ran for Senate in 2000 – are carving a new, more inclusive path in politics that we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss. A confused and frustrated New Yorker article back in 2000 condemned the tours for trying “to elevate nodding into a kind of political philosophy”.

But when we consider how Clinton’s policies have been crafted like patchwork from thousands of scribbled-down suggestions voiced by her electorate, this criticism seems immature. Hers is not the politics of replication, trying impossibly to mould herself into the patriarchal model of what we expect a politician to be. She is innovative and willing to experiment, not only in order to create a new space for women in politics, but to improve the political machine as a whole.

Hillary Clinton is one of the most powerful women in public life today, and she is doing it by reinventing what we understand as authoritative, as brave, and as strong. Donald Trump can hit her with hollow insults as much as he likes, but they all come down to nothing. If she’s a nasty woman, then I want to be one too

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