Sexist responses to Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy misrepresent female leaders

By NIKITA NAGRAS ’17 

Contributing Writer

by Alexa J. Williams '14 Arts Editor

by Alexa J. Williams ’14
Arts Editor

When Chelsea Clinton announced that she was pregnant, the American media was far from congratulatory. News reporters and political pundits questioned whether Hillary Clinton’s future grandchild would keep her from running a presidential campaign in 2016. USA Today reporter Catalina Camia said it was still “unclear how Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy will affect Hillary Clinton,” and NBC’s David Gregory pondered how a grandchild “would factor in” during Clinton’s possible campaign.    Others offered an alternative view. New York Post columnist Kyle Smith labeled Chelsea Clinton’s unborn child “a stage prop” and suggested that he or she will play an important role in boosting Hillary Clinton’s popularity. Some even wondered whether the timing of Chelsea Clinton’s announcement was simply a coincidence. Plausibly, “Grandma Hillary” could have plotted this from the very beginning, because a chubby, smiling grandchild would “soften” her image.

The media’s message is clear. A woman cannot run the nation with a grandchild because she needs to devote all her attention to the baby. Even if Clinton proves herself capable, she is still using the child to collect more presidential votes. Unless the media and society change their sexist and ageist outlook on women leaders, the chances of young women entering and succeeding in politics are very low. 

The American media focuses more on the private lives of female politicians than those of male politicians. It scrutinizes the appearances, clothing habits and familial matters of women leaders far more than those of men leaders. The media’s reaction to the Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy demonstrates how the media encourages this double standard. 

When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, not a single person questioned whether his 17 grandchildren would hinder his prospects or capabilities as a national leader. Even though having a grandchild may signify a person’s age, Hillary Clinton’s 66 years does not entail senility or lack of capability. Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan aged past 70 years in office, and never was their age put under scrutiny.

The media’s response is all too reminiscent of the 2008 presidential elections, in which Clinton faced negative press for her confident personality. Hecklers would interrupt Clinton mid-speech asking her to “iron their shirts” and detractors labeled her a “bitch.” Society’s fear of a woman stepping out of traditional gender roles provoked responses that illustrated the underlying sexism that shapes our society. Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly believed that Clinton, a woman, would prove an incapable leader due to “PMS and mood swings.” 

Even upon proving her impressive credentials, her former achievements seemed to scare many people. During her campaign, she lost in popularity polls against Barack Obama, because citizens labeled her “cold and unlikeable.” The news of Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy sparked rumors that Clinton would use her grandchild to “humanize” herself, which shows how the media finds ways to reduce even the most capable of women to a manipulative crone. 

In other words, Clinton cannot win the media’s approval either way. According to the media, her failure would derive from her womanly traits and her success from her cunning and manipulation.  

Even if someone argues that Clinton really did perpetuate a ruthless image, it cannot justify why Sarah Palin — who tried to promote an image almost antithetical to Clinton’s, as a “soccer mom” full of warmth — was depicted on the cover of Newsweek wearing tiny shorts and cocking her hip like a pinup model.

Potential presidential candidates are not the only women scrutinized for their appearance and family matters. When Condoleezza Rice became the first African American woman to be appointed Secretary of State, the New York Times reported her dress size. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was often attacked for “not taking care of her children.” Even young women on the cusp of entering politics cannot escape. When Sandra Fluke, then a Georgetown law student, testified in 2012 for insurance covering the costs of contraception, political pundit Rush Limbaugh called her a slut and questioned her sexual conduct.

Politics is a toxic field for women. On all sides, they face scrutiny for being too womanly or not womanly enough. Whether they step out of their designated gender roles or conform to them, women still face institutional difficulties when trying to succeed in politics. According to the Eagleton Institute of Politics, women make up only 18 percent of seats in the U.S. Senate and hold only 20 percent of executive positions in state governments. As of now, only five states have women governors. 

The vitriol spewed by the media chases young women from politics. A report by the School of Public Affairs in American University reveals that young women are much less inclined toward politics than men. In a survey of 2,100 respondents, with factors like income, religion, region, age and race taken into account, young women demonstrated far less enthusiasm for politics than men did.

The media is reflective of societal beliefs, as it reinforces and encourages the norms that shape society. Thus the question remains: Who needs to take responsibility for the decreasing rates of women entering in politics? Is the media or society at fault? The best answer would be that both media and society need to change their outlook on women leaders and realize what’s at stake if women are constantly discouraged from politics. Women’s health, women’s education and women’s concerns will go unheard if media and society keep criticizing women leaders for their choices in appearance and family matters — the one criticism male leaders almost never have to bear. 

Let the speculation surrounding Hillary Clinton’s future grandchild be put to rest. After all, Clinton served two terms as U.S. Senator and one term as Secretary of State, became the first woman to win the primary presidential election, and was the first and only Wellesley student to deliver a commencement speech at her own graduation before receiving a seven-minute standing ovation. She can manage a bubbly toddler.  

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