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Tears or ice maiden: is there a double standard for women in public?

Updated Thursday, 6th March 2008

Women often lose either way, damned if they do and damned if they don’t express emotion in public, either approach being judged to convey symbolic meanings that question their authenticity and authority.

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My colleague Engin Isin wrote an interesting blog in January about the episode of Hillary Clinton’s tears. He argued there that there are many signs that indicate that the image of being political now includes being emotional and many signs that men as well as women are caught in the production of this image. He pointed out that one of the main arguments against including women in politics until the twentieth century was that ‘women ostensibly represented the irrational and passionate aspects of being human and such qualities did not belong in public space’.

However, I think there is enough evidence to show that women still contend with double standards in public. In presenting themselves as public persons, they must make finely tuned decisions about the nuances of gendered meanings. In public office they may struggle to find a rhetorical style – a persona – that the press and the public will accept as ‘authentic’. Hillary Clinton has continually been cursed with the perception that she is calculated, contrived and overly macho. We will never know if her famous tears may or may not have been equally calculated, which presents us with a modern conundrum. For we demand these days that politicians must act in such a way that is ‘true’ to themselves: so here we have tears that signify spontaneity and personal expressiveness, even if those same tears risk being regarded as contrived, fake, tactical. Clinton was at the time saying ‘It’s very personal for me, it’s not just political, it’s not just public’, which underlines her use of authenticity here.

Hilary Clinton speaking at rally

is the double bind: if Clinton conducts herself in a male style, she risks disappointing those for whom having a woman candidate and president makes a difference. It seems to be the case that Clinton has lost the support of many professional women; and she may have suffered also for not having publicly shared her pain about the Lewinsky episode (by, for example, going on the Oprah Show!). Of course she may also not project the right kind of womanliness to attract Republican voters to the Democrat cause, having declared when Bill Clinton became president that she wouldn’t be the type of First Woman to bake. Would a man married to a female president even feel compelled to make a public statement about their role?

If a woman is a strong leader she is at fault for not being a homemaker, but if she is a homemaker she is at fault for not having the qualities of the leader. The quality she needs to be a president – to hack it with the big boys – is the same quality that goes against her. If women talk loudly they are shrill; if they talk softly they are overly feminine and weak. And Clinton as a woman is described in ways that could not now be publicly used to describe Obama as a non-white; when a member of the audience at a John McCain event asked the Senator ‘How do we beat the bitch?’ McCain’s smiling reply was ‘Excellent question’.

Some commentators think that the Democratic race for nomination is inevitably reduced to that between a black man and a woman and that because the U.S population are more sexist than they are racist, Clinton will never win the candidacy and less even the Presidency. That is, to use semiotic terminology for a moment, a female signifier of difference from an unmarked (white, male) norm is more troubling than a black signifier of difference.

This is not about whether people think Hillary Clinton is capable, knowledgeable, or rational; she is widely thought to be all these things, and these would be valued in a man. But these capacities are undermined by what is clearly a different wish that she show some kind of deeper, truer self, which is ‘feminine’. So far the consensus seems to be that while Obama looks unforced and his speeches are born of deep conviction, here we have a woman whose political ambitions and ambitiousness are seen to question her very humanity.

These problems appear whenever women enter the public sphere, and not just in the domain of politics. Kate McCann (whose daughter Madeleine was abducted in Portugal last summer) was probably right to complain that if she looked and acted in a more ‘maternal’ way, she would have had more sympathetic media coverage. Judged endlessly by her demeanour, which was considered too much the ice queen, there was deemed to be a necessary link between outward appearance and conduct and inner life.

Her inner turmoil, then, should have been visible, her feelings closer to the surface – via dishevelled clothes, lack of care for the self, tearful inarticulacy. Because it wasn’t, and she exerted some control over her public self, she was regarded as quite possibly an irresponsible mother as well as a realistic suspect in her daughter’s abduction. I noticed that there was no similar questioning of the integrity of her husband, for Gerry McCann has been equally able to remain relatively emotionless and poker faced in public appearances.

There seems, then, to continue be a very strong wish to question the motives and even ethical capacity of women once they relenquish the maternal, the instinctive, the emotional – typically regarded as qualities belonging to private life but which they must leave behind once they step into a public, for which read masculine, role. Women often lose either way, damned if they do and damned if they don’t use an emotional register in public, either approache being judged to convey rich symbolic meanings that question their authenticity and ultimately their authority.


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