Meryl Kenny is Lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh and Co-Convenor of the Political Studies Association’s Women and Politics Specialist Group. She tweets from @merylkenny and @genderpol.
Politics of late has been full of examples of ‘dangerous women’ shaking up the status quo. In 2015, it was the ‘scarlet sisterhood’ of female party leaders in the UK General Election, led by the ‘most dangerous woman in Britain’, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. 2016, meanwhile, has become the year of the ‘nasty women’, a viral call for solidarity that has re-appropriated an insult made by Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton in the waning minutes of the third US presidential debate.
The ‘nasty woman’ moment is one of many in the US presidential election, where sexism has been overt and out in the open. ‘Trump that bitch’ t-shirts and bumper stickers are frequent sights at Trump rallies, as well as other merchandise that crudely sexualizes Hillary Clinton (‘KFC Hillary Special – 2 fat thighs, 2 small breasts…left wing’). Trump himself has frequently disparaged women’s looks in the course of the campaign, telling Rolling Stone to ‘look at that face’, when asking whether anyone would vote for his Republican primary opponent Carly Fiorina. More recently, he implored his supporters to ‘look at her’ when referring to one of the women who has accused him of sexual assault, following this up with ‘I don’t think so’.
Other insults have been subtler, playing into gender stereotypes – including Trump’s frequent refrain that Secretary Clinton does not have the ‘look’ or the ‘stamina’ to be President of the United States. This, of course, taps into a gendered reality – for 227 years, US presidents have ‘looked’ male. Indeed, male dominance is a global feature of political institutions (including both legislatures and executives) – currently, almost 80% of parliamentarians around the world are men. The gender gap in political leadership is equally stark – if Clinton is elected, she will join a small club of only 18 women prime ministers and presidents around the world. Overall, then, the general rule still holds – the more powerful the political position, the less likely it is to be filled by a woman.
The research evidence is clear about the causes of women’s under-representation, highlighting the structural barriers and party political barriers that constrain female candidates, as well as incidences of direct and indirect discrimination in selection and nomination processes (Kenny 2013). Yet, even after women enter political institutions in higher numbers, obstacles remain. In US state legislative committees, for example, research has found that as the proportion of women increases, men become more verbally aggressive (Kathlene 1995). In the UK House of Commons, female MPs have reported facing sexist taunts and gestures in the chamber, compounded by gendered press scrutiny and comment. In Australia, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard tackled sexism in politics head on with an instantly viral fifteen-minute ‘Misogyny Speech’ delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, recent research by the Inter-Parliamentary Union finds that threats of death and violence are incredibly common for women in politics, with more than 40% of female MPs interviewed in the study reporting that they have received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction while serving their terms.
These examples of sexist and misogynist behavior are possible because they are ‘hardwired’ into the institutions in which politics takes place (Lovenduski 2014), institutions that are constructed on the historical foundations of women’s political exclusion. When women enter legislatures and executives, then, they enter ‘masculine territory’ – embodied in institutional rules, norms, practices and cultures that ‘can make women feel, without being told in so many words, “you are out of place here”’ (Cockburn 1991: 65). In doing so, they become ‘dangerous’ – disrupting the status quo, and drawing attention to the hidden expectations and taken-for-granted practices that favour the ‘male-politician-norm’ over the ‘female-politician-pretender’.
Consider, for example, the UK House of Commons, which embodies a very particular and traditional culture of white, middle class, masculinity. This, after all, is an institution that has provision for members to hang up their swords before they enter the chamber, but that didn’t have a workplace nursery until 2010. The rules, norms and practices of the House of Commons centre around zero-sum games – favouring adversarial styles of debate, speechifying, posturing, and arcane practice over cooperation and consensus-seeking (Lovenduski 2014). In this context, women and other ‘non-standard’ politicians are marked out as ‘space invaders’ – to use Nirmal Puwar’s (2004) term – vividly evidenced, for example, in the frequently reported experiences of women and black and minority ethnic MPs asked to justify their presence in ‘members-only’ areas.
Similar experiences have been reported by US women politicians, barred from the Senate floor, for example, because they were assumed to be staffers. Until 2013, the women’s toilet closest to the US Senate floor had only two stalls. When former North Carolina Democratic Senator Kay Hagan arrived on Capitol Hill in 2008, she reported being told that the Senate pool was men-only. When she asked why, Hagan was informed that some of the male senators liked to swim naked.
In this gendered context, women politicians face an almost impossible task of having to live up to these masculine expectations of political office, whilst also ‘managing’ their femininity. Indeed, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign exemplifies this ‘double bind’ faced by women candidates between femininity and (masculine) ‘competency’ (Murray 2010). Secretary Clinton’s qualifications for executive office are not in question, yet her political ambition has often been framed as ‘unfeminine’ and unnatural – she is ‘inauthentic’ and can’t be ‘trusted’, because she’ll ‘do anything to win’. At the same time, Clinton faces constant questions about her ‘likeability’, particularly given her high unfavourable ratings among voters.
Consider, for example, the US presidential debates, where the expectation bar was markedly lower for Donald Trump than it was for Clinton. As outlined by MSNBC television pundits in pre-debate commentary, the main tasks for Trump during the first presidential debate were to ‘stop lying’, ‘show humility’, and ‘fill in the gaps in [policy] proposals’. Clinton on the other hand, was advised to not only ‘sell her presidency’, but also to ‘be the Clinton who shines in a smaller crowd’, and ‘get those jokes off, adding levity’. Meanwhile, in the post-debate aftermath, Atlantic senior editor David Frum wondered on Twitter who had ‘told’ Clinton to ‘keep smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party’, while Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press described her as ‘over-prepared’. For Hillary Clinton, then, as with other women candidates, it has often been a case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ – an irreconcilable choice between being perceived as likeable but incompetent, or competent but cold.
Eight years ago, after conceding the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton famously stated that the ‘highest, hardest glass ceiling’ had got ‘18 million cracks in it’. While the cracks in the political glass ceiling may be widening, it hasn’t shattered yet – we are still well short of equal representation in politics. Women in politics are ‘dangerous’, then, because they continue to challenge this male-dominated status quo, exposing the gendered foundations of our political institutions and expanding our collective imagination of who is fit to lead.
Cockburn, C. (1991) In the Way of Women: Men’s Resistance to Sex Equality in Organizations. London: Macmillan.
Lyn Kathlene (1995) ‘Position Power versus Gender Power: Who Holds the Floor?’ in G. Duerst-Lahti and R.M. Kelly (eds) Gender Power, Leadership, and Governance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press: 167-193.
Meryl Kenny (2013) Gender and Political Recruitment: Theorizing Institutional Change. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Joni Lovenduski (2014) ‘The institutionalization of sexism in politics’, Political Insight, 5 (2), 16-19.
Rainbow Murray (2010) Cracking the Highest Glass Ceiling: A Global Comparison of Women’s Campaigns for Executive Office. Praeger.
Puwar, N. (2004) Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg Publishers.