The coverage of Clinton’s health proves we still think women are the weaker sex

The gendered aspects of the current news cycle, explained

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File
CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File

Earlier this month, during an appearance on MSNBC, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) told Andrea Mitchell that the persistent narrative raising suspicion about Hillary Clinton’s health was “quite sexist.”

Right-wing and conservative websites — which have been pushing conspiracy theories about Clinton’s mental and physical capacity with accelerating intensity in recent weeks — immediately hit back derisively at Klobuchar’s comments. When a local Minnesota news station asked the senator’s spokesperson for comment, her office walked back her initial statement regarding sexism, emailing the station to clarify that “the Senator believes that the status of a president’s health is always a legitimate issue and not in any way gender based.” Klobuchar, the email read, “was simply responding to a statement by a Trump campaign co-chairman who said that Hillary Clinton was ‘frail’ and ‘wobbly,’ which is clearly not the case.”

Then, at a 9/11 commemoration this past weekend, Clinton was filmed in a now-viral video looking, well, wobbly. Later in the day, her campaign disclosed that she’d been diagnosed with pneumonia the previous Friday.

Political corners of the internet erupted. Questioning Clinton’s health, journalists declared, was now a legitimate line of inquiry — and decrying the persistent speculation about Clinton’s frailty as sexist was just an example of liberals working too hard to defend the Democratic candidate.


Since Sunday, however, a number of other prominent women have joined Klobuchar to call out the potentially gendered issues with the furor over Clinton’s health. On BBC radio, former New York Times Editor-In-Chief Jill Abramson said she sees “elements of sexism” in the way that Clinton’s health has been “overcovered,” including the incident at the 9/11 memorial. On CNN, Christiane Amanpour came to Clinton’s defense: “Leading the world in sickness and in health — if the boys can do it, why not the women?”

So what is the real story? Does the media bonanza represent necessary scrutiny of someone who might be the next leader of the free world? Or is it another case of implicit biases and overt sexism running amok?

Well, it’s complicated. “I have mixed reactions,” Jennifer Lawless, professor of government at American University and the Director of the the Women and Politics institute, told ThinkProgress.


Legitimate health concerns, she pointed out, have also plagued male candidates. In 1992, Paul Tsongas ran an ad of himself swimming laps to quell fears about his history with cancer. In 2008, John McCain’s history with cancer and age became a big story, particularly after he chose the untested Sarah Palin as his running mate. The scrutiny of McCain, in particular, is a running talking point among those pushing questions about Clinton’s health.

With Clinton, though, that’s not quite where the story ends.

“I do think that the way that Hillary Clinton has been portrayed as weak and how the Trump campaign has tried to suggest that she’s physically unfit to be Commander in Chief is a little bit different than these other examples,” Lawless said.

“Sometimes there’s a pretty good reason for playing the woman card.”

Unlike McCain, Clinton hasn’t been diagnosed with a chronic illness — during this year-and-a-half long election cycle, the pneumonia diagnosis this week is the first legitimate illness, despite the persistent fear-mongering about her 2012 concussion and blood clot (which the doctor who actually examined her said is no longer an issue) and her coughs. And pneumonia, as Lawless points out, is “an illness that healthy people get. It’s not a chronic condition. She’s taking antibiotics and it’s going to go away.”

Clinton’s illnesses, both real and imagined, have generated coverage in the press and speculation from the peanut gallery of a different scale and tenor than similar health issues among other male candidates.


“The gender aspect really cannot be overlooked,” Donna Halper, an associate professor of Communication and Media Studies at Lesley University, told ThinkProgress. “I know it’s fashionable for people, particularly opponents of Hillary, to say she’s playing the woman card. But sometimes there’s a pretty good reason for playing the woman card.”

It’s true that if any presidential candidate were filmed being helped into a car after an abrupt departure, it would probably make the news. But if it were a male candidate, it probably wouldn’t make the news in quite the same way, because that coverage wouldn’t have the same fertile ground of sexism to spread from. Questions about Clinton’s health just won’t go away — partly because they fit so neatly with longstanding sexist cultural tropes about women’s weakness and frailty.

Playing into the idea of women as the weaker sex

For centuries, women were viewed as literally the weaker sex, both mentally and physically. The excuse is trotted out again and again as a way to keep women from stepping into formerly male roles.

In the 1920s, it was used as an argument against women’s suffrage. In the 1940s, even women serving alongside men in the armed forces were helpfully reminded that no matter what uniform they put on, they were “still the weaker sex.” In the 1960’s, despite clear evidence to the contrary, arguments about women’s weakness (particularly their inability to control their bodies once a month) kept women out of the space program. In 2015, women’s weakness and was cited by the Marine Corps as a reason to keep them out, in direct contrast to the move towards inclusion by the Army and Navy.

And Clinton’s illness on Sunday perfectly plays into other gendered stereotypes as well. Though no video evidence has emerged of Clinton crumpling to the ground, headlines immediately began proclaiming that she had “fainted” — a symptom that retains its gendered connotations from when proper Victorian ladies used to swoon onto fainting couches.

Sally Draper on a fainting couch in Mad Men CREDIT: NETFLIX, SCREENSHOT
Sally Draper on a fainting couch in Mad Men CREDIT: NETFLIX, SCREENSHOT

Fainting couches are a perfect example of codified sexist notions about women’s health. Though fainting was (and still is) considered evidence of the weakness of women in both body and mind — how many classic romances feature women, unable to deal with their overwhelming emotions, fainting into their lover’s arms? — historians now quibble over the true function of the fainting couches. One theory holds that the beauty requirements of the day required women to be corseted so tightly they couldn’t breathe. Another is that the couches were a convenient place for pelvic exams as treatment for hysteria — thought to be a mental condition stemming from the misplacement of women’s wombs.

Yet as Amanpour points out, fainting is hardly a female condition. Franklin Pierce was elected president despite being derisively called “fainting Frank” over his habit of swooning in battle, and both Presidents Bush as well as General Petraeus have all fainted in the past.

Sure, fainting may be considered embarrassing for men—in no small part because it’s associated with delicate femininity — but it’s not seen as evidence of intrinsic weakness in the way that it is for women. Fainting doesn’t change the way we think of men quite as much. But Hillary Clinton having a fainting episode, even only in headlines, is much more damning.

Donald Trump —who is a year older than Clinton, hasn’t yet released his medical records, and goes home to sleep in his own bed most nights — has expertly capitalized on this sexist history, laying fertile ground for the rabid news coverage around Clinton’s health.

“It is no accident that Mr. Trump has dog-whistled to his supporters on a number of occasions that she lacks the stamina. Which is code for, ‘she’s a woman and she’s not strong enough,’” Halper said.

Despite how often the Trump campaign has questioned Clinton’s stamina, however, her status as a public figure proves otherwise.

“Hillary Clinton has been running for president for a year and a half. We’ve seen her endure eleven hours of scrutiny during Benghazi hearings. We’ve seen her deal with many many debates, a very difficult and onerous convention schedule, and she has not in any way faltered,” said Lawless.

“But the minute she coughs, the minute she’s demonstrated any degree of physical weakness or frailty — even if it’s just a typical condition like a cough — the Trump campaign has pounced on that to suggest that she doesn’t have what it takes.”

Ageism and sexism, the double whammy

Both presidential candidates this season are undoubtedly elderly. Clinton is 68, Trump is 70, and though they are both past the age when most Americans retire, they’re seeking the most difficult job in the country. But because she’s a woman, Clinton faces a far different set of standards.

“Why is there more fuss about Hillary’s age than Donald’s? Because an older man looks distinguished,” Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, told Eleanor Clift at The Daily Beast. “Older women are invisible.”

In pop-culture, it’s common for Hollywood to pair older men with much younger women — a practice lampooned by Amy Schumer in her sketch “Last F**kable Day” in which she meets Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette, and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss celebrating the end of their “believable” sex appeal.

While Clinton is hardly auditioning for the role of America’s sweetheart, we’re still conditioned to apply youth as a virtue, particularly to women.

“You were supposed to only be valuable in the society if you were young.”

“Don’t forget, for centuries, women were encouraged to never tell their age. You were supposed to only be valuable in the society if you were young,” Halper told ThinkProgress.

While it’s difficult to definitively say the Trump campaign wouldn’t levy the same arguments against a 68-year-old male opponent, Lawless says, “the language that they’re using and the way they’re trying to frame her is certainly consistent with the notion of a weak woman.”

And though we can’t be sure, it’s unlikely that Trump attacking a male opponent for his supposed frailty would have the same effect —for one, there would be more of a risk of the tactic backfiring on Trump, the resident septuagenarian of the presidential race.

This line of attack works better against Clinton, Lawless noted, “because she’s a woman and because she doesn’t look the part.”

Women have to work twice as hard

After news broke about Clinton’s current bout of pneumonia, two very different stories about the candidate emerged.

One camp took the news as confirmation of her weakness, and of the dubious right-wing conspiracy theories that have been spinning ever since she testified before the Benghazi committee wearing prism glasses. Others, though, lifted it up as a testament to her strength.

While the first narrative received a lot of play in the media, particularly of the Breitbart variety, the second rang true for many of America’s women.

Women still bear the brunt of childcare duties and household chores. Parents, as a NyQuil ad campaign reminds us, don’t get to take sick days. Women, in general, are less likely to have a job that offers paid sick leave, and when they take sick days, research shows it’s usually not to put their feet up, but to double as caretakers for children or relatives.

The flip side of this is that women have historically been seen as a liability for their employers because if they get pregnant, they might leave the work force to care for their children. And though Congress enacted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, women are still (illegally) fired or passed up for promotions because of pregnancies.

And the assumption that women in particular are prone to taking time away from work — regardless of whether they’re doing it to take care of children or not — plays its part in the notion that women are weaker or less serious about their careers than men. That’s why, for women like Clinton seeking powerful or formerly male positions, taking time off can be dangerous.

“When women say that they’re ill, immediately it plays into discourses that women aren’t strong enough,” said Halper.

Research also shows that women generally have to work twice as hard to be given the same chance as equally qualified men — a fact Amanpour brought up in her spirited defense of Clinton’s right to take a sick day.

“Don’t get me started,” she said. “Because when it comes to overqualified women having to try 100 times harder than under-qualified men to get a break, or even get a level playing field, well, we know that story.”

The difficulty with Hillary Clinton

Of course, attempting to parse the gendered aspects of coverage this campaign cycle is clouded by the fact that Hillary Clinton is no ordinary woman — she has 25 years of media coverage behind her, indelibly shaping the way she is perceived now.

And one of the biggest issues with Hillary Clinton’s public identity is her perceived lack of transparency. Had she disclosed the pneumonia on Friday and skipped the 9/11 memorial, she probably still would have been criticized as weak, but it may have been a less damaging news cycle overall.

Instead, Lawless said, the delay served to reinforce the Trump campaign’s narrative that “there’s something she doesn’t want us to know.”

The fact that Clinton hid something is likely to be what haunts her campaign most. According to Lawless, even though Clinton’s campaign was hiding “something totally benign…it plays into this broader argument that she doesn’t tell the truth about anything the first time she’s asked.”

There’s one other problem with attempting to diagnose sexism in this election: Not only does Hillary Clinton carry the baggage of being, well, Hillary Clinton, but we also don’t have enough data to parse out whether arguments are sticking to her because of her gender or because of her individual political career. Right now, she’s the only one out there.

“She’s the only candidate we’ve got who’s been a woman who’s reached this level of presidential politics,” said Lawless.

So the truth is, when it comes to Hillary Clinton’s health, it’s complicated. There are many reasons behind why the press swarmed on the story, and behind why speculation gets catastrophic so quickly. But as coverage of the candidate’s health is likely to continue — Trump keeps promising to make his most recent physical exam public, potentially on an episode of “The Dr. Oz Show” this week, while the Clinton campaign has announced it plans to release further medical records — the gendered aspect can’t be dismissed.

“My take on it is there’s probably some gendered component but we don’t have the evidence that it’s fact,” said Lawless. “But it’s plausible, and if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, it might be a duck.”