Elayne Clift: Why are powerful women so threatening?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Elayne Clift, who writes from Saxtons River. She has taught Women’s and Gender Studies at various colleges in the U.S. and abroad.  

For first lady Hillary Clinton it was wearing hairbands. Michelle Obama bared her arms, which (white) first ladies had done before her. First lady Jill Biden, who earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in education was condemned by a Wall Street Journal writer whose sole academic achievement is an online bachelor’s degree. He thought Dr. Biden presumptuous for being addressed as Dr. Biden, calling her “kiddo” and “Dr. Jill” instead.

As each of these women gained political legitimacy the insults escalated.  Clinton was called “messy, explosive, and politically clumsy” early in her political career by a pundit who conceded she was “formidable.” By the time she told the Chinese government that women’s rights were human rights at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, she’d been labeled “unlikeable” at home. Still, she proved herself an effective senator and secretary of state before winning the popular vote for president in 2016. 

Michelle Obama, now arguably the most popular woman in America, suffered not only misogynist attacks, but racist ones as well. “Women endure these cuts in so many ways that we don’t even notice we’re cut,” she told an audience of young women after leaving office. “We are living with small, tiny cuts, and we are bleeding every single day. The shards that cut me the deepest were the ones that intended to cut,” she said, including being referred to as an ape.

Now comes Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to be one breath away from the presidency. Called “too ambitious,” for demonstrating self-confidence in the ability to lead, she “rebukes news stories that treat her successes as evidence against her elevation,” as Megan Garber pointed out recently in The Atlantic. Harris has also been called “not loyal and very opportunistic,” “too charismatic,” “dominant,” and someone who “can rub people the wrong way.” 

As a 2019 Huffington Post story noted, “Half the Men in the U.S. Are Uncomfortable with Female Political Leaders.”  

It’s not only in political spheres that women who exert their intelligence, agency, aspirations and innate power are trivialized, mocked and pilloried. A cursory look at women’s history reveals how endemic the fear of women has always been.

A fascinating theory of why women became objects of fear looks to an early agrarian time when men were warriors and women were gatherers and growers. Their respective roles were honored equally. But unlike men, women could bleed and not die. They could bring forth life. It was a mystery that became frightening as life became nomadic and men fought for land and commodities. One of those commodities was women, who were strangely powerful. 

During the Industrial Revolution, as women became workers, began earning money, and sought to have fewer children, they started asserting themselves, leading to the historic question, “What are we going to do about the women?”

History is rife with examples of misogyny whenever men felt threatened by women. The popularity of midwives in the 19th century became threatening to the male medical establishment when doctors realized there was money to be made if they treated childbirth as a disease. The result was dramatically higher maternal mortality. Nurses were recruited as lesser beings as an 1890s British manual reveals. “The best nursing girl is one who is tall, strong, and has a suppleness of movement. One who plays lawn-tennis, who can ride, skate and row, makes the best material. If she can dance, it is a great advantage …” A 1901 AMA statement added, “Nurses are often conceited and unconscious of the due subordination owed to the medical profession, of which she is a useful parasite.” 

The male literary world’s fear of writing women was abetted by Freud who labeled their work a hysterical preoccupation with memory, thus a disease. A reviewer reacted to Vera Britton’s wartime autobiography with this: “An autobiography! But I shouldn’t have thought anything in your life worth recording!” And writer Gerard Manley Hopkins claimed that the pen was “a kind of male gift.” 

Then there were Rosie the Riveters in World War II. Provided with child care and earning their own money, they were denied both when Johnny came marching home again.

Examples like these abound, Twenty-first century psychology articles still claim that pursuing power, especially in politics, “may signal an aggressive and selfish woman” who forgoes “prescribed feminine values of communality.” In other words, a woman’s job is to stay home, stay quiet, and volunteer.

Geraldine Ferraro was onto this schtick when she ran for vice president and was called “too bitchy” by George H.W. Bush’s press secretary. So are women like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who was called a “fucking bitch” by a House colleague on the Capitol steps. “Our culture is so predicated on diminishing women and preying on our self-esteem, it’s a radical act to love yourself,” she proclaimed.

Women like Vice President-elect Harris aren’t having it. After her nomination, she told a group of teenage girls to be ambitious without apology. The reaction of one of them was captured by Megan Garber in The Atlantic. Men “don’t fear Senator Harris for her ambitions,” she said. “They fear her because of a generation of Black girls who are watching and who will follow her example to pursue excellence.”

That’s one smart girl, and likely future politician.


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