The Fix would rehash the "woman card" debate if it weren't for the well-established fact that one does not simply get to deploy one's gender at will for political advantage. The experiences that come with being a woman in the United States are constant, and the decision to make these issues part of one's campaign are no more or less legitimate than a developer, such as Trump, supporting the government's exercise of eminent domain.
And, quite frankly, we might go there if so many others had not already done so very, very well.
However, there is another set of questions that do come out of Trump's declaration. Clinton is the first woman likely to become a major party's presidential nominee. She is a former senator, a former secretary of state, a former first lady and key political adviser to her husband. As such, she has both a record for which she must, without question, be prepared to answer and a segment of her life where the personal and the political are more than a bit difficult to parse.
Love her or hate her, this is a situation that presents quite a challenge. Yet, after Trump's pronouncement, Clinton told reporters that she plans to say nothing at all in response to Trump's Bill Clinton-sexist, Hillary Clinton-enabler claims. Nothing. Given that, The Fix decided to check in with two political scientists — both of them women — who study voter behavior, female candidates and gender in politics. We asked them about the likely nominees' plans on this front.
Sarah Elise Wiliarty is an associate professor of government at Wesleyan University where she teaches comparative politics courses with a focus on Western Europe and women and politics. Her book, "The CDU and the Politics of Gender in Germany: Bringing Women to the Party," was published in 2010. Wiliarty is not affiliated with a campaign but plans to vote for Clinton.
THE FIX: We often talk about Hillary Clinton as if she is a singular figure: A former first lady and key political adviser, senator, secretary of state and now presidential candidate. Are there any other comparable women in history?
BROWN: Perhaps Eleanor Roosevelt is the closest comparable figure to Hillary Clinton in modern American political history. Roosevelt took the reins after FDR was stricken with polio and advanced progressive policies and positions — notably, more reformist in nature than her husband’s — to advocate for women’s rights and against racial discrimination. Indeed, it was Eleanor that helped curate the Black Brain Trust — a group of prominent African Americans who advised the president on “Negro affairs” and who helped to sell the New Deal to black constituencies — and who often met with this group and took their recommendation back to the president when FDR refused to meet with them. Eleanor was a public figure who wrote a daily newspaper column, briefed (an all-female) press corps, and lectured nationally. After FDR’s death, she was appointed delegate to the United Nations. She would later represent the country on the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
Historians believe that Eleanor, who was initially a shy and introverted woman, became increasingly independent after discovering that FDR was having an affair with her social secretary, Lucy Mercer. Although Eleanor offered to divorce Franklin, the couple — with the insistence of his mother, Sara — opted to remain married due to the social stigma of divorce, which may have devastated FDR’s early political career.
Both Hillary and Eleanor devoted their time to social and political causes and their own identities as political figures. Perhaps both women saw their marriages as a way to promote their own political agendas once their husbands’ extramarital affairs were discovered. Unlike Hillary, questions surround Eleanor’s romantic life as she was openly affectionate with other women (namely, Lorena Hickok) and men. Whereas less is speculated about Hillary Clinton’s personal life, both women have shown tremendous independence outside of their marriage.
WILIARTY: Actually, being elected to a political office formerly occupied by their husbands is an extremely common way for women to come to power. Frequently this happens after the husband’s death. There’s even a name for it: widow’s succession. German female politicians sometimes say, “Women enter the Bundestag over the dead bodies of the men.” In the United States, as of 2013, eight senators and 39 congresswomen had entered office this way, including Jean Carnahan, Margaret Chase Smith, Mary Bono and Doris Matsui.
Some women served only briefly following a widow’s succession, but others served several terms. Historically, women have been enormously more likely than men to gain office either through appointment or special election, often following the death of the former occupant. Presumably, women have “specialized” in this form of access because of greater difficulty with gaining office through regular general elections.
From a cross-national perspective, having family ties of some sort to a former leader is actually very common for both men and women. In Asia and Latin America, family ties have been a dominant route to executive office for women. If we look around the world, nearly all women in the office of president, that is an executive office directly elected by voters, have family ties to a former president in their country. Well-known examples include Isabel Peron of Argentina, Violeta Chamorro of Nicaragua, Cristina Fernandez (Argentina), Indira Gandhi (India), Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (Philippines).
THE FIX: Do you anticipate that Trump will continue to raise his claim that Bill Clinton is a sexist and Hillary Clinton an enabler?
BROWN: Trump will continue to use misogynist language to bait Hillary Clinton into addressing Bill Clinton’s infidelities. We have seen Trump successfully brandish derogatory monikers against his political foes (i.e., Lyin’ Ted Cruz, Little Marco, Low-Energy Jeb Bush). Connecting Hillary to Bill’s dalliances as an enabler — or, worse yet — as a woman that could not satisfy her husband — “What makes her think that she can satisfy America?” [Ed. note: This was a tweet that Trump's Twitter account briefly retweeted last year, before his campaign began.] This tweet forcefully illustrates that Trump believes that Bill’s philandering is a key point of attack against Hillary.
WILIARTY: I think Trump will raise any issue that he thinks will be effective criticism of Hillary or Bill Clinton. I would expect Hillary Clinton to do the same. We are probably looking at an extremely negative campaign season.
THE FIX: How potent do you think the "enabler" claim might be as a political tool?
BROWN: This is a particularly potent claim against Hillary. According to a recent CNN/ORC International Poll, less than 20 percent of Americans sampled said that they did not think that America was ready for a woman president. Indeed, Gallup polling data has shown that Americans are increasing likely to support a woman candidate, particularly if a voter’s political party nominated a qualified woman.
These numbers indicate that Americans may not be opposed to electing a woman president; it is the candidate herself that matters most. Therefore, Trump does not necessarily have to play the gender card against Hillary but rather showcase why she, in particular, is the wrong woman for the job. This nuanced argument is an individual attack against Hillary — not women candidates. As such, Trump may be able to sidestep overt claims of misogyny and sexism.
However, if Trump’s past rhetoric is any indication of what is in store for the general election, it is highly probable that he will make direct misogynist remarks against Hillary Clinton.
WILIARTY: I don’t think this particular accusation — that Bill Clinton is a sexist and Hillary Clinton is an enabler — will likely stick or be terribly effective, even if Trump tries it. Anyone who is married knows marriage is complicated, and anyone who follows politics knows that the Clintons have a political marriage, which is likely even more complicated.
Hillary’s decision to stay with Bill after the many accusations of marital infidelity was seen as controversial. Some voters wanted her to leave what they regarded as an abusive relationship. Some voters were happy to see her “stand by her man." I suspect for many voters Bill Clinton’s possible infidelities are water under the bridge. Having an affair is not really the same as sexist behavior. Bill Clinton has a pattern of illicit sexual relationships, but he is not the candidate this time around. It is possible that Hillary Clinton will be less likely to call Donald Trump a sexist if she thinks it will highlight this form of attack.
THE FIX: Is there anything we already know about voter behavior that is particularly relevant in the face of this issue?
BROWN: Hillary Clinton has had difficulty in mobilizing and energizing young women voters in her primary against Bernie Sanders. If she becomes the Democratic presidential nominee and Trump makes blatant sexist comments against Hillary, I anticipate that young women voters will support Hillary. Voters are primed and mobilized when they feel that the other side is attacking their core values and way of life. This motivation may drive young women voters to the polls for Hillary.
Furthermore, research has shown that undecided male voters are more likely to be mobilized through the use of negative campaign ads. Potential Trump voters are primed by these attack ads. In essence, Trump’s hyper-masculine persona and his statements that his opponents are too feminine — i.e. Little Marco, Jeb Bush needing his mother to campaign for him, Hillary is too soft on ISIS [another name for the Islamic State] — plays into the narrative that hetero, white, middle- to low-income men need to rightfully reclaim their position as head of American society. Trump understands that his key voting demographic has [responded] and will respond to these messages — as presented through negative campaigning against his opponents — and vote for Trump in the primaries and general election.
WILIARTY: I think it’s unpredictable how voters will respond.
THE FIX: Given this, what can and should Clinton do if and when Trump raises the sexist and sexist-enabler charge?
BROWN: Engaging Trump has proved to be unsuccessful for his former Republican primary competitors. Hillary should stay above the fray by addressing her qualifications, policy priorities and big ideas for fixing America’s problems. In doing so, she should repeatedly underscore the importance of women’s rights and gender equality (being sure to pay attention to intersectional issues, such as class, race, sexual orientation and other salient political identities — noting that all women do not face the same issues and experience the world differently). Responding directly to Trump’s sexist comments and/or sexist-enabler charge will do little to persuade Trump supporters that they should vote for her. Instead, Hillary needs to win over independents, Bernie supporters, progressives, millennials, and disaffected liberals. Hillary should spend her energy on trying to recreate Obama’s big tent and get these voters to turnout for her in November.
WILARTY: If I were Hillary Clinton’s adviser on this topic, which thank goodness I am not, I would advise her to ignore it or perhaps to say that outsiders cannot understand the internal workings of a marriage. That message will resonate with many voters. Some people may feel sorry for Hillary. Some may feel sorry for the women Bill Clinton possibly had affairs with. I doubt this particular issue will be decisive in many voters’ minds, so the best thing Hillary Clinton can do is ignore it.
THE FIX: What about if Trump or his allies allege that Bill Clinton's sins went beyond infidelity? (Rand Paul has accused the former president of being a "sexual predator," for instance.)
WILIARTY: First, I think it’s important for [Hillary] Clinton to make clear that she thinks it’s important to take sexual assault seriously. She has already said this, but she will need to keep reiterating that point. She has a long-standing record of being a leading voice on women’s rights, and I don’t think this issue is going to damage that record seriously. She is the candidate here, not Bill.
Second, audience matters a great deal. Trump supporters will believe him and his attacks on Bill and will probably also believe that Hillary acted as an “enabler” to silence women who accused Bill of sexual assault. But they were not going to vote for Hillary anyway. Established supporters of HRC will believe her. It’s true that she has struggled to win support from younger female voters, but I don’t see this issue as the main reason for that.
Younger voters, including many of the students at Wesleyan, are very taken with Sanders’s rhetoric and his ideas about far-reaching changes to the political and economic establishments in this country. It remains to be seen what will happen once we have two definitive candidates.
THE FIX: Is there anything else that might important for readers to know or understand about this issue?
BROWN: Donald Trump's attacks on Hillary Clinton are more of an attempt to rally male voters. He is speaking to men — particularly white, middle- to lower-class men — who feel as if their power and prestige are unfairly being diminished in this age of political correctness and changing American social norms. In an era where the vast majority of Republican candidates are trying to court women voters, Trump is turning his attention to the other side of the gender gap – men voters who are more likely to vote Republican (since the 1980s) than women.
Seventy percent of women say that they will not vote for Trump and that they find his rhetoric toward women to be distasteful. It is unlikely that Trump will win over more women in the general election; thus, his strategy will be to solicit male voters. Hillary Clinton’s use of the "women card" — an actual card that she used as a prop in a weekend fundraiser — speaks well to women and an entirely different demographic than to who Trump is seeking to mobilize this election. The two candidates are using gender as a tactic to draw divergent supporters.
WILARTY: I think the notion of a “first family” will be more important than Bill’s potential infidelities. Or perhaps that the infidelities will feed into a larger understanding of what the “first family” will look like after the election is over. Regardless of which candidate wins (assuming it turns out to be Trump vs. Clinton), the symbolic representation of the “first family” is going to look quite novel to voters and probably some will struggle with the new possible images that either candidate presents.