opinion

Hillary and Julia suffer from the same curse of unlikeability.

Once, when she was Prime Minister—the first and only woman to occupy that position in Australian history—I saw Julia Gillard speaking on the floor of parliament. Television footage and print depictions of “Ju-liar”, a deliberately barren, frumpy, deceitful witch, had not prepared me for the spectacle of Gillard in the flesh. In a black suit, with her iridescent red hair and her distinctive mannerisms, she danced like a flame against the flat backdrop of grey, seated men.

She commanded that room. I wished everyone could have seen her like that, wished there was enough diversity in public reportage to convey the power and complexity of this three-dimensional and singular woman.

Watch Julia Gillard’s iconic misogyny speech below. (Post continues after video…)

Video via ABC

Some say the eventual downfall of Julia Gillard was caused by the sexism and misogyny of men in Australian politics and in the media. Yet it was Australian voters, and their low opinion of Gillard, that pushed her own party to oust her.

Gillard challenged deep-seated ideas about women’s natural roles. She refused to be silenced or ignored by her male colleagues. She was unmarried and had chosen her career over having children. As deputy PM, she helped oust Kevin Rudd from office, and then took his job. These acts demonstrate her refusal to be stuck as a second fiddle to a man she thought incompetent or bow to the entrenched gender hierarchy.

Similarly, Hillary Clinton also challenges traditional ideas of a woman’s place.

Although she is also a wife, mother, and grandmother, to the public Clinton is first and foremost a politician.

Over the three decades she has been in the public eye, Clinton has been portrayed as ugly, pantsuit-wearing and fashion backwards. She’s been called humourless, out of touch, a frigid, undesirable schoolmarm whose lack of appeal effectively caused her husband to stray. She has been criticized for being part of the political elite and cosying up to business interests, for changing her positions based on political expediency.

"Some say the eventual downfall of Julia Gillard was caused by the sexism and misogyny of men in Australian politics " Image via Instagram @juliagillard

She's been lambasted for her hawkish foreign policy, for guilt by association with her husband’s policies such as on mass incarceration, for covering up her husband’s philandering and for silencing a woman who accused him of rape.

She's been accused of not standing up for women, for being a white middle-class second-wave feminist, for trading her values and beliefs for political power.

These are just some of the reasons that a lot of people say they don’t like Hillary Clinton.

As with Gillard, Clinton has been tarred with the same brush, the curse of unlikeability. There is a sharp disconnect between Clinton’s public profile and reports of what she’s like in person. Many of those who have met and worked with Clinton note how genuine she seems, her good humour, spontaneity, and keen ability to listen.

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Critics say she’s manufactured a public persona. That it's a marketing ploy to make her more appealing. The other view is she doesn't understand how to behave according to political media etiquette, a thin swipe at her abilities.

Interestingly, Clinton's historical public approval ratings indicate her problem with likeability is about something beyond persona.

"As First Lady, Clinton endured attacks for choosing her career over developing her cookie baking skills" Image via Instagram @hillaryclinton.

Clinton’s ratings dropped significantly each time she sought political power through electoral office—whether running for the US Senate or presidency.

However, once she achieved positions of power, her approval ratings increased. As Secretary of State in the Obama administration, she had an approval rating of 66% (a number Obama himself never reached), and was arguably, the most respected politician in America.

According to a Gallop poll, at the end of her term in that role, her approval reached a high of 69%. People like her best when she’s about to leave office.

Now, more than half the country can’t stand her.

The swings in opinion about Clinton—and their timing—suggest that her apparent likeability problem is not only or actually about her. Instead, it’s more about a broader dislike of women who challenge the traditional gender order, a dislike that is most concentrated, most visible, in the peak moments of challenge.

"People like her best when she’s about to leave office". Image via Instagram @hillaryclinton

How dare a woman seek public office? How dare a woman think she can legitimately occupy the most powerful position in a nation’s politics?

Women who dare are held to higher standards than their male counterparts. Clinton and Gillard have both been branded untrustworthy pariahs for exactly the same behavior as male politicians are often admired for.

The women who dare in American and Australian politics are caught in an impossible bind.

We’re suspicious of their ambition if they’re single and childless. We think they can’t commit to the job if they’re married mothers. We don’t take them seriously if they’re attractive. We don’t desire them if they’re not traditionally beautiful. They’re ruthless and can’t be trusted if they play the game. They’re weak and incompetent if they don’t. They can’t do the heavy lifting in a skirt, they’re not women if they’re wearing pants. And woe betide them if the skirt or pants aren’t in vogue.

We don’t even have the capacity to properly acknowledge or admire the tenacity, the endurance, the steel wills of the women who have cracked and smashed the highest glass ceilings of our nations.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we are still living with nineteenth century ideas of what a woman is supposed to be. In the US, a “true woman” was one who was pure, pious, domestic, and submissive. Similarly, in Australia, women were idealized as what Anne Summers identified as “god’s police.” Climbing to the top of the political ladder, the pursuit of power, is antithetical to these feminine ideals.

"They can’t do the heavy lifting in a skirt, they’re not women if they’re wearing pants." Image via Instagram @juliagillard

Clinton and Gillard have made history. They have forged new realities of womanhood that will push back against outdated ideals, they have expanded possibilities for our daughters, and they have done it against the tide of public opinion and support.

Imagine what women could achieve if we championed instead of hatred, women’s diversity, complexity, and ambition.

Imagine our lives if we took power.

Rebecca Sheehan is a lecturer in US History at the United States Studies Centre. Her forthcoming book "Rise of the Superwoman: How Sex Remade Gender in America’s Long 1970s" is under contract with Harvard University Press.

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