If the 2016 election has taught us anything, it is that attacks against powerful women politicians will focus on the fact of their being “imperfect females” as if those mythical imperfections are disqualifications for office. Having a voice as a woman in 2016 is no different than being a powerful woman five centuries ago: when political opponents cannot beat you on the issues, they’ll revert to the old chestnuts: powerful women are monsters, bitches, and, according to the British conservative tabloid The Daily Mail, “lesbians.”
Putting aside the obvious argument — that calling Hillary Clinton a “lesbian” doesn’t carry the same sting in an era in which LGBTQ liberation makes being a lesbian a matter of pride, rather than shame — why do we continue to see the same tired insults dragged out against powerful women? The extraordinary Flo Kennedy, feminist and civil rights campaigner, had a standard response when hostile men would ask her if she was a lesbian. “Are you my alternative?” she would ask and shut them up.
Five hundred years ago, John Knox, one of the major “Reformers” of the Christian Church, railed against the various women who sat on thrones in Europe as the “Monstrous Regiment of Women.” Women ruling over men was so contra the natural order that it led Knox to rail: “Would to God the examples were not so manifest to the further declaration of the imperfections of women, of their natural weakness and inordinate appetites! I might adduce histories, proving some women to have died for sudden joy; some for impatience to have murdered themselves; some to have burned with such inordinate lust, that for the quenching of the same, they have betrayed to strangers their country and city; and some to have been so desirous of dominion, that for the obtaining of the same, they have murdered the children of their own sons, yea, and some have killed with cruelty their own husbands and children.”
In other words, women ruling over men was so against nature because when you allowed women’s appetites to run amok, they killed their husbands and their children, and they went crazy with lust. In fact, women’s lusts were so intense that it led to all manners of evil. Luckily for all of us, Knox wrote, God had seen fit to put men in charge. Knox had written his book as a Protestant in response to the fact that in 1558, there were three Catholic women who were queens of their countries. Knox found himself red-faced when Elizabeth I came to power in England in 1558 — not only a Protestant, but one to whom he ended up having to mansplain his opposition to female rulers.
But Knox is part of a long line of male thinkers who have seen female leadership as an unnatural distribution of power. In this way, Trump supporters are following an ancient script. And, it’s the fact that America still cherishes “family values” that makes calling Hillary Clinton a “lesbian” still something that people do. Over at Broadly, Dr. Maarja Luhiste, an expert on politics and gender at Newcastle University, says that this type of comment can only work in a traditional culture like America. Because there is still so much emphasis on the heterosexual family unit in American political life, calling Hillary Clinton a lesbian implies that she is somehow failing at a fundamental level.
“It’s about our social expectations of what a ‘good woman’ and a ‘good politician’ mean, and the two don’t always match. As a female politician, you’re either accused of being not a ‘proper woman,’ or not a ‘proper politician,'” Luhiste says.
Luhiste contrasts Clinton with Sarah Palin, who has always been portrayed in a very feminine light. On the other hand, not many folks see Sarah Palin as a particularly competent politician. So, while Sarah Palin may pass the traditional mother, traditional woman test in a patriarchal society, the attacks on Palin centered on her lack of political experience.
The other element that contributes to rightwing attacks on Hillary has centered on her sartorial choices. Hillary does not dress in dresses and skirts. She favors pantsuits, and and more than one pundit has analyzed her wardrobe as being that of a lesbian. Those of us who remember back to the days when Clinton was First Lady will recall that when she did wear skirts and dresses, much of the commentary was directed at the shape of her ankles. Now that she has switched to pantsuits, the choice is seen as somehow less feminine, and, in the minds of those where sexuality and gender work on a strict binary system, choosing to dress in a less feminine way makes one a lesbian.
Misogyny will make you crazy if you let it. Attempting to analyze how it works, and how to understand how it still manages to ensnare the thinking of generations of men and women will become a full-time job if you allow it to. Calling a woman a lesbian is only an insult if one continues to live in a world where not being with a man is a measure of failure. For those who continue to inhabit that old world, the fact that Hillary Clinton is a powerful woman who has been married to the same man for her entire adult life while raising a successful daughter has left them hurling ancient insults.
Lorraine Berry @BerryFLW on Twitter