For months now I’ve been listening to the pundits and the polls that say people don’t trust Hillary Clinton. It’s a very popular topic and has been for years.

These feelings aren’t about trust. They are about power. They are a mask for people’s basic discomfort with a woman having a lot of power — even one everyone admits is exceptionally well qualified to hold the highest office in the land.

Among the many articles on “trust” is one published by the Huffington Post entitled “Hey Hillary, Here’s Why People Don’t Trust You” in which a New York writer explained that “She is all too willing to manipulate, distort, and deceive to try to score political points for herself.”

However you state it, that’s what all politicians do; if they didn’t they wouldn’t get elected. The author essentially accused Hillary of being a normal politician, and found that to be really, really bad. He’s not alone.

Polls that ask voters to compare the Presidential candidates with “most politicians” find that almost half think Hillary is less honest than most politicians.

It’s a classic double standard. We know that women have to be twice as good to earn half as much. Hillary’s generation (and mine) was raised on the admonition that women should be docile and modest. That meant that women couldn’t be leaders, except of other women. We heard that everyone wants to hire an aggressive young man; an aggressive young woman is a bitch. As women climbed up the professional ladder and entered professions previously closed to them, we learned that men are assumed to be competent until they prove themselves incompetent and women are assumed to be incompetent until they prove themselves competent. Assumptions and perceptions about women have changed over the decades, but the double standard still applies to any job identified as male.

In this election, the double standard is about power.

The Presidency of the United States is the most powerful position in the country, even in the world. The thought of a woman in that hot seat still makes people uncomfortable, even those who say they’d like to see a woman President. What makes a woman womanly is inconsistent with what makes a man Presidential.

By way of analogy let me tell you about another election that revealed a double standard about power. In May of 1966, I was working for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Macon County Alabama, trying to elect black candidates to public office. The Alabama primary was the first major election in a Southern state since the Voting Rights Act was passed and it was seen as a test of its effectiveness. With an 83% black population, Macon County was the blackest county in the country, not just in Alabama. But the white elite had effectively kept blacks from voting until the VRA was passed the year before, so most of the black voters were new voters.

By the primary election blacks were 51% of Macon County voters. Four black men were running for office in the May 31 run-off primary. Fred Gray, an attorney, ran for the Alabama House; Lucius Amerson, a Korean War veteran, ran for sheriff, two other black men ran for lesser county offices. Along with other SCLC staff I canvassed for all four, but I only ran into resistance to voting for Amerson. The voters I talked to expressed reservations about his qualifications.

© Jo Freeman
© Jo Freeman

I spent a lot of time explaining to new black voters why this black man was far more qualified than his white opponent. After many such conversations, I realized that his qualifications weren’t the problem. The people I spoke with were uncomfortable with the idea of a black man in a power position. In rural Alabama counties, sheriff was one of the two power positions (the other was Probate Judge, which was the chief county administrator). For rural blacks, sheriff was the most important elected official in the county. In 1966, blacks who had grown up with all political power being exercised by whites were uncomfortable with a black man in that powerful job.

Amerson also saw this reluctance. He later wrote that he was “more than aware that some Negroes felt the time was not right for a Negro sheriff.” My canvassing taught me that even those blacks who were ready to vote didn’t quite believe that a Negro should or could hold a power position like sheriff. I’m happy to report that Amerson did win that election, becoming the first black sheriff in the South since Reconstruction. But he got a thousand votes less than Fred Gray, who wasn’t running for a power position.

Similar attitudes are behind the negative opinions so many people express about Hillary Rodham Clinton. She’s just as trustworthy as the next politician, and more than most. She’s also just as likable, and just as honest. But the idea of a woman holding the power of the Presidency still makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. They just aren’t just ready to say so.

As they did in Macon County Alabama, however, attitudes can change with exposure. In 1959, James A. Farley, former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee and New York political boss, wrote an article entitled “Why We’ll Never Have a Woman President” for This Week magazine. The subhead elaborated: “One of the shrewdest political figures of our time says that despite our changing attitudes toward women in politics, we’ll never put one in the White House — for three good reasons.” They were: women’s lack of broad, varied training in government, business or the military; women were too emotional and subjective; and military leaders wouldn’t take her seriously as Commander-in-chief. Farley concluded that “most men and women wouldn’t feel right or safe with a woman President today.”

At the time he wrote, no woman had run for President, at least not visibly, since Victoria Woodhull and Belva Lockwood did so in the 19th century. Yet only five years later, Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith would become the first woman to seek the nomination of the Republican Party. One of her reasons for running was “to break the barrier against women being seriously considered for the presidency of the United States — to destroy any political bigotry against women on this score.”

© Jo Freeman
© Jo Freeman

In 1972, Congresswomen Patsy Mink (HA) and Shirley Chisholm (NY) ran in several Democratic Party presidential primaries. By the time Hillary first announced her candidacy for President in January of 2008, over fifty women had run for President, both in the major party primaries and at the head of minor party tickets in the general election. Their efforts had slowly undermined Farley’s belief that “we will never have a woman President… at least not within the lifetime of anyone reading this article.”

Yet in 2015 eight percent of voters told Gallup pollsters that they would not vote for a well-qualified woman for President who was the nominee of their party.  While this had dropped from the 39 percent who had said no when Farley wrote in 1959, it’s not because the “political bigotry” about a female President is gone. It’s just taken on a new form.

This post was originally published on without the photos.

3 thoughts on “Hillary: It’s Not About Trust, It’s About Power

  1. If only Hillary Clinton’s “trust problems” arose solely from sexism! The sexism theory doesn’t do anything to explain *to the electorate* why Clinton repeatedly lied to the public about her email problems. Clinton’s statements on the campaign trail about the email scandal came *after* she had an opportunity to consult with her own attorneys, staff and investigators. It is inconceivable that over the last few months Clinton didn’t understand that she was under criminal investigation by the FBI, that there was a possibility she could be charged under the Espionage Act, that her behavior at the State was inconsistent with the rules, that she had sent and received classified material, that her server was the target of attempted hacks, etc, etc. All of these facts would have been discussed by Clinton and her advisors over the course of preparing a possible defense and weighing scenarios for dealing with the political fallout from an indictment. She lied to the public about this stuff – with a kind of confidence and zeal that I guess we are supposed to understand is typical of “all politicians.”

    What is a non-sexist person supposed to say when confronted with all the detailed revelations of her untruthfulness the last few weeks have brought us? “Oh, well, all politicians lie. If she were male you would think it is okay. You’re just upset that she is so good at lying because you unconsciously believe that women should be held to a higher standard. George Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and he got away with it. Why shouldn’t Hillary Clinton get away with lying about some emails? Richard Nixon was a notorious liar, but the sexist electorate allowed him to function for at least one full term as President. Why shouldn’t Hillary Clinton be given the same chance? Ronald Regan sometimes sounded delusional and confused about reality, and he too got to be President. Why there isn’t a truthful president in the history of the United states. It is so common a fault that it is almost a requirement for the job! When Hillary Clinton lies she is demonstrating to the electorate that she is just as qualified – if not more so – than her male predecessors.”

    Of course it is also undoubtedly true that a good part of the animosity directed at Clinton arises from sexism. The problem is that she does such a good job of creating a non-sexist rationale for mistrusting her. She ain’t no Elizabeth Warren.

    1. I shared some ideas on Facebook. I guess I am low tech.
      When it comes to Clinton, we should sort out the issues as you do above.
      And one of the issues should be the noted displacement from power to trust.
      It is nearly impossible to measure the amount that sexism informs peoples opinions of her because it is so rarely directly expressed. But one of the ways in which sexism (and racism) are expressed is by asking what this candidate really wants, by distrust. I think it was Zizek’s observation of the reaction to Jesse Jackson’s campaign when people asked “what does he really want.” And another way sexism and racism are expressed is by attributing to the woman or person of color the attributes of all politicians. So, she just wants power. She authorized killing, etc She somehow comes to embody the negative qualities of all politicians.

      I do not see HRC as fundamentally dishonest. There was nothing in the emails and she was debriefed on Benghazi for what 18 hours. She has made some terrible decisions, like the Iraq War. But she has been in politics long enough and at a high enough level that she is going to have made some really bad choices.

      I don’t see the left’s opposition to her as fundamentally sexist. I think she is not progressive enough for many progressives and their complaints are based often in her policy. I don’t agree with the complaints all of the time, or the tenor or the extremity of their dislike of her, but I do see it as based in their principles. But the far left who have decided not to vote lose me. She is running against Donald Trump. That is the reality. I know only the relevant swing states matter but disengagement should not be an option at the moment and you cannot ask her to work for you if you don’t vote for her.

      The sexism may be more on the moderate right. The far right are really just a bunch of lunatics definitely sexist but how can we even talk about them. The reason I say it about the moderate right is because I see her as center-right so their reasons for not supporting her have to be something other than policy.

      Elizabeth Warren rocks but she has not been around as long as HRC and I am starting to wonder if we are not a little naive in thinking that even someone like Elizabeth Warren would have to make distasteful compromises if she were to run for a higher office.

      Again, I don’t share the public distrust of her. I just don’t see it no matter how often I go back and listen. I see that she calibrates her answers. And sure I’d like to see her shoot from the hip but my guess is that it is not in her temperament and she has had to develop a pretty thick skin. I think her self-control is often a way of protecting herself from what has been 25 years of vilification.

      1. I have to add to my comment because it was nagging me. The sexism has to be there on the left as well. I am not sure where but the tendency to call HRC an enabler of her husband’s affairs strikes me as, I dunno, off– is it sexist? I think she was just plain blindsided.

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