The Strange Role of Sex in Hillary's Failed Run

Hillary Clinton, shown in this April 8, 2008 file photo, is scheduled to bow out of the presidential race this Saturday and give her endorsement to Barack Obama. (Image credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh.)

Hillary Rodham Clinton came close, but failed. Beyond the wrong turns pointed out by strategists, her political path this year was rooted in social biases, some scholars say. 

Gender stereotypes, for instance, put Clinton in a no-win situation, said Caroline Keating, a psychologist at Colgate University in New York.

"When white women step up to the plate and behave as leaders, so they're aggressive, and arrogant and ambitious, that conflicts with our gender stereotype for femininity," Keating said. "Even though they may be seen as competent, the way Hillary Clinton is, we're a little uncomfortable with it and it's harder to like such a woman."

In addition to leadership traits that often don't fit our picture of a woman, Keating and some sociologists point out Clinton's demise as a presidential candidate hinges on society's and the media's acceptance of sexism. Furthermore, they say, the political race was not between stick figures, as voters are also interested in the individual characteristics that make Clinton, Clinton.

Sen. Clinton is expected to drop her presidential campaign on Saturday at an event in Washington D.C. The announcement will mark the end of the line for her in some ways, but it's also a beginning for women as U.S. presidential leaders, said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia.

"Let’s keep in mind that Hillary Clinton came within a whisker of doing what no woman has ever done in American politics — winning a major party’s presidential nomination," Sabato said. "Had she not been opposed by another candidate with an equally impressive 'first,' Barack Obama, she would have been the nominee."

Sexism and racism

While Hillary was set to make political history for women, Obama obviously has also broken what was an unwritten presidential rule on race: For 200-plus years, every U.S. president and major party ticket candidate has been a white man.

For some sociologists, it's no surprise that race has been transcended before gender in this arena.

"Cues for race are so in your face [that] it has the effect of keeping us on the ball and making us work harder to overcome our biases and prejudices," Keating said. "We all have them."

That's not to downplay the effects of racism that persist here and around the globe. In the United States, Keating said, gender divisions are accepted.

"In some ways, the divisions we perceive between male and female are very ingrained in the everyday business of life and interactions," Keating said. "It makes it more acceptable to be sexist. It's those perceived sex differences that often give rise to the prejudice."

Media coverage

The media has reflected society's gender biases in the reporting on Hillary v. Obama, according to a recent study analyzing the first month of campaign coverage in six major newspapers, including "The Wall Street Journal," "The New York Times" and "Los Angeles Times."

Study leader Erika Falk, a communications faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, found that Obama received more media coverage, and the articles showed slight biases in his favor.

For instance, Clinton was more likely than Obama to have her legislative title (senator) dropped, and to be referred to by first name or by gender. While 59 headlines contained "Obama," just 36 included "Clinton," and Obama was mentioned in 84 stories compared with Clinton's 55.

Clinton mentioned last month what she said was the media's acceptance of sexism. "The manifestation of some of the sexism that has gone on in this campaign is somehow more respectable, or at least more accepted," Clinton told NBC's Tim Russert of "Meet the Press," a Sunday-morning political talk show.

"But it does seem as though the press, at least, is, is not as bothered by the incredible vitriol that has been engendered by the comments and the actions of people who are nothing but misogynists," Clinton added.

Magali Sarfatti Larson, a professor emeritus of sociology at Temple University, said Clinton has been the "victim of persistent misogynistic attacks." Even so, Larson sees the "misogyny" as a positive, saying, "I do not think these attacks have harmed her at all but, rather, solidified and intensified the support of her basic constituencies."

Sabato had a slightly different take on the role of sexism in Clinton's ups and downs.

"Alas, sexism and racism were both in evidence from time to time in various ways, in the news media coverage and in voters’ minds," Sabato said. However, he noted, other reasons related to the candidates' campaign strategies were likely more important in determining the outcome.

"Actually, Clinton’s dogged persistence and toughness in the face of long odds in March through May probably counteracted the sexist view that no woman was strong enough to be president. And I don’t believe that view was particularly widespread anyway," Sabato told LiveScience.

Leadership challenges

This "dogged persistence and toughness" is a great leadership trait, that is, if you are a man, according to Nancy DiTomaso, a sociologist at Rutgers Business School in New Jersey.

A leader must be both competent and likable. Social and political scientists tend to agree on this trait pair.

"Almost all the research in this area tends to show that women who are perceived as competent are simultaneously perceived as not nice," DiTomaso said, adding that "nice, not competent," also go together.

That's a tall order for Clinton and other aspiring female leaders.

"The dilemma for white females is that the stereotype does not include many features related to leadership," Keating said. "Stereotypically females are affectionate, charming, talkative, submissive, weak, understanding, gentle. Power-related or leadership words — tough, loud, arrogant, aggressive, adventurous — are associated with males typically and things masculine."

Keating added, "The perception is that she is quite competent; it's just that she's hard to like. Why is that? Because she's quite competent."

Rise to power

Clearly, some U.S. women have risen through the ranks to become powerful, competent and well-liked political leaders. North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole is one such example.

"Many of the women who have risen to those positions [of political power] have to stay within what's thought of as a narrow band of acceptable behavior," DiTomaso said during a telephone interview. This narrow band includes female leaders who look feminine, she said.

Even though Clinton reportedly tried to come across as feminine (wearing feminine clothes and even crying during a press conference), "she still comes across as someone who's extremely smart and competent, and therefore not nice," DiTomaso said.

Complex creatures

Clinton and Obama, of course, are much more than representatives of gender and racial categories.

"There's that big caveat, somebody should recognize, it's not just about race and sex. It's also about the person," Keating said. "Obama is not only a black man; he's also Obama. Clinton is not only a white female; she's also Hillary."

Voters are also complex creatures, and how and why they choose one candidate over another is a mystery. 

"The simple act of voting is actually terribly complex," political scientist Sabato said. "A voter’s choice is a murky mixture of preferred issue positions, personality, character, image, and vague (sometimes inaccurate) impressions. What people say to pollsters and what actually motivates them are two different things."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.