Home / Blog / Article




March 16 2016

Hillary Clinton's "Sexist Double Bind"--Yeah, Right

Charlotte Allen

Gosh, it's so hard to be a woman running for president like Hillary Clinton!

So many different outfits to choose from while dressing for the campaign trail that...how can you be sure you've made the right choice?

And hairstyles! Long? Short? Headband? No headband? Careful styling or let it all hang out like an old hippie?  It's enough to drive a lady-presidential contender crazy!

And that, explains Georgetown University linguistitcs orofessor Deborah Tannen writing for Time, is why hardly anyone really likes Hillary Clinton, even though plenty of loyal Democrats plan to vote for her in November: Hillary is in a "sexist double bind"!

We all know that Hillary has a "male-voter problem,"--and also a "female-voter problem"--but as Tannen tells it, the reason is that no matter what kind of look Hillary chooses--or what kind of speech style she affects--she's bound to make some choices that people don't like. So it's damned-if-you-do and damned-if you don't when Hillary's faced with the choice of donning that tangerine pantsuit with the matching tangerine blouse.

And that's because she's a woman! No one expects a man to wear a tangerine pantsuit!

Here's Tannen's profound analysis of Hillary's likability problem:

...Clinton must take time to have her hair styled, and even more time having it dyed and applying makeup. She also has to shop for, and then select from, a closetful of outfits—carefully! [Bernie] Sanders, like all male candidates, has only to make sure he has a dark suit, clean shirt and reasonable tie handy. He could easily wear the same suit and tie day after day, but she must wear a different outfit at each debate, while wearing shoes that are less comfortable and harder on her back. The real dilemma, though, is that the range of options from which a woman must choose—styles, colors, lengths, how much skin to expose—is so vast, that any choice she makes will strike many viewers as not the best, providing fodder for criticism and ridicule.

And those "less comfortable" shoes must be why Hillary made a sourpuss face when some meanie from the press asked her about her home-based e-mail server that seemed to be the repository of so many classified documents.

And then there's that hair problem:

When Clinton first appeared on the national stage back in 1992, the young wife of the Arkansas governor running for president, she kept her natural-brown hair off her face with a headband. This sparked an avalanche of criticism, so she colored her hair and had it styled, which led to a new round of accusations: she was nefariously manipulating her image! Other damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t attacks were also particular to her as a woman. Because the Clintons kept their small daughter out of the public eye, polls showed that people thought they were childless, a condition that stigmatizes women. When evidence emerged that Clinton was a devoted mother, Margaret Carlson writing in TIME found her guilty of “yuppie overdoting on her daughter.”

You just can't win if you're a woman!

All these forces have played a role in Clinton being seen as inauthentic and untrustworthy. And they are all related to the double bind that confronts women in positions of authority, as I recently wrote in the Washington Post. A double bind means you must obey two commands, but anything you do to fulfill one violates the other. While the requirements of a good leader and a good man are similar, the requirements of a good leader and a good woman are mutually exclusive. A good leader must be tough, but a good woman must not be. A good woman must be self-deprecating, but a good leader must not be.

Sanders is appealing when he comes across as tough by railing against Wall Street and corporations, and as comfortingly homey and authentic with his rumpled clothes and hair and down-home Brooklyn accent. When Clinton is tough, a characteristic many see as unfeminine, it doesn’t feel right, so she must not be authentic. And a disheveled appearance would pretty much rule her out as an acceptable woman. As Robin Lakoff, the linguist who first wrote about the double bind confronting women, put it, male candidates can have it both ways but Clinton can have it no ways.

My own conclusion is that Tannen, like many a professor, is overthinking the issue. Maybe the reason that so many Dems don't really like Hillary, even though they plan to vote for her faithfully, is that she's just not a very likable person.



Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
Follow us