by Lynn Marie Houston
After the first Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton began leveling false accusations of sexism in attempts to damage the credibility of her opponent, Bernie Sanders (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJ4wiAZevec). As a woman and a feminist, I am appalled that a potential future President of the United States could stoop to such low-blow tactics.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff seem so frequently to make her gender the focal point of her campaign, that they have forgotten that there are people out there, like Bernie Sanders, who respectfully take issue with her platform, not with the fact that she is a woman. This is a problem in a campaign which is, at its root, one based in an argument about gender. I’ve heard it from many Clinton supporters, who claim “we’ve had a black man in the White House, now we have to get a woman in there.” This is not an argument advanced by a theory of equal rights, a theory that would argue for the best person in the White House, regardless of gender, a theory that would also argue for a certain kind of ethics in campaigning that gives equal access to all candidates, despite their race, class, or gender.
It’s as if Clinton and her staff have self-hypnotized. By making Hillary’s status as a woman their primary argument to women voters, they see any attack on her as being sexist. And when every attack is cast as sexist, then it is actually disturbing the equality of the campaign process, preventing the male candidates from engaging a woman on her ideas. It’s undemocratic. The Clinton campaign strategy seems to be that Hillary is exempt from being called on any of her beliefs by the other opponents or it is automatically sexist, shutting down policy debates which are an important part of the national process in shaping our next President. When Hillary cries wolf about attacks of sexism, no one wins. Certainly not women who experience real sexism, whose experiences are trivialized by Hillary’s false accusations.
Sexism is a very serious issue with very real and negative ramifications. It goes without saying that Hillary has surely experienced her fair share of it in her career. However, it is clear from her recent spin of the exchange with Bernie Sanders that she is inventing claims of sexism where none exists, and that doing so hurts other women just like false claims of rape make it more difficult for survivors of rape to be believed.
If I could offer some advice to Hillary campaign staff and her supporters, it would be some simple test to help them understand when sexism is legitimately occurring. In the field of linguistics, we often use what are called “frame sentences” to determine how a word is acting in a sentence. For example, the frame sentence used to test whether a word is an adverb is as follows, “The woman told her story _________.” If a word in a sentence makes sense in the blank, then it is functioning as an adverb. The word “slowly” fits in the blank, for example, so it fits one of the linguistic criteria for an adverb.
I might offer a comparable frame sentence for sexism: “My opponent claimed that I ____________ because I am a woman.” If filling in the blank with something an opponent said accurately represents the situation as it occurred, then yes this is an issue of sexism. However, if the claim is not linked to Hillary Clinton being a woman, and is, instead, a criticism of her political ideas, then no, sexism did not occur. Attacks on Hillary’s ideas are not necessarily sexist unless they attack her for having them because she is a woman.
Let’s examine Bernie Sanders’ words to see if they fit the above test. Sanders basically claimed that regarding gun control, actions are better than words. The exact quote was, “All the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence.” (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/10/hillary_clinton_is_smearing_bernie_sanders_as_a_sexist_it_s_an_insult_to.html)
Can Hillary legitimately claim about the above that her opponent claimed that she should stop shouting about gun control because she is a woman?
No, she cannot. Nothing in Sander’s response makes a direct attack against Clinton because of the fact that she is a woman. Others have pointed out that this idea of “shouting” is a refrain that has synonyms like “yelling” and “screaming” in almost every one of Sanders’ speeches on gun control and never with any reference to Hillary Clinton. Because unlike Clinton, Bernie Sanders is trying to keep this race about the issues, not about the personalities. And in offering that, he is doing a great service to the women of this country who deserve the best candidate and the most equitable selection process a democracy has to offer.
Lynn Marie Houston holds a Ph.D. in American literature from Arizona State University. Her poetry and essays have appeared in a number of journals and websites, including The Good Men Project, Full Grown People, Alyss, S/tick, Lumen Magazine, The Fem, and Painted Bride Quarterly. In her first poetry collection, The Clever Dream of Man, she explores relationships between men and women. She is currently pursuing an M.F.A. at Southern Connecticut State University.