Will Englund is an editor on The Washington Post’s foreign desk and the author of the forthcoming book “March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution,” which will be published in early 2017.
Donald Trump and his allies have spent the fall depicting Hillary Clinton as too much of a hawk and too much of a dove, as too reckless with American power and too weak at the same time. She voted for the war in Iraq. She wanted to go into Libya with guns blazing. No, wait: She quailed at confronting the Islamic State. She failed to override Iraqi objections to keeping American soldiers on the banks of the Euphrates.
From the left, she is criticized for being too eager to project American power abroad, often favoring military force when President Obama was resistant. Even within this critique, though, there is sometimes a suggestion that she is weak — “susceptible” to guidance from neoconservatives.
It’s a bind that’s familiar to other women in prominent government roles, especially in the realm of national security: They have to deal with skepticism that they’re tough enough to protect American interests and American citizens. Can a woman be “as strong as a man”? That puts them in a position of having to prove their toughness, which in turn puts them at risk of being declared overly aggressive.
Few have understood these pressures better than Jeannette Rankin. She was the first woman elected to Congress, exactly 100 years ago. She ran because she wanted to be a voice for women and children, to advocate for safer food, better health care and, most important, national women’s suffrage. But on the day she took her seat, April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson went to the Capitol to ask for a declaration of war against Germany.
Rankin had come to Washington amid a buzz of excitement. “The Lady from Montana” (one of only 11 states that had given women the vote) was a progressive Republican who campaigned against big corporations and the class known back then as the “2 percent.” She was 36 and loved fast cars. Back East, it had been rumored that she was a man-hater and that she had flaming red hair, neither of which was true.
She did believe that men and women had different takes on the world. She thought that war reflected the inability of men to solve problems, that women are less likely to pull out the guns when they can’t think of anything else to do. And she believed that American entry into World War I, as Wilson demanded, was foolish. Yet she came under intense pressure from the Eastern leaders of the suffrage movement to back the president. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, wanted to show that women were just as patriotic and tough as men. “Don’t be womanly” was the message. But were women supposed to deny what Rankin believed to be their common nature — and their own good sense?
She knew that the eyes of the entire country were on her. She didn’t want to hurt the cause of suffrage. But she felt that as a woman who wouldn’t have to serve, it would be wrong for her to send young men off to die across the sea. At 3 a.m. on April 6, after days of anguish, she cast her vote.
“I want to stand by my country — but I cannot vote for war,” she told the House.
Forty-nine congressmen also voted no (Rep. Claude Kitchin of North Carolina, the Democratic floor leader, was in tears as he argued against war), but it was Rankin who drew the country’s attention. Afterward, Catt wrote that “our Congress Lady is a sure enough joker” and that the Montanan had cost the suffrage movement “a million votes.” Even those editorial pages that were ferociously critical of the antiwar faction tended to treat her gently — that is, condescendingly. She was a woman; what could you expect?
In large part because of that first vote, she had no chance of reelection when her term was up. It was only after 22 years had gone by, when the memories of World War I had been soured by the mess that followed, that she was able to return to Congress. That put her in a position to vote against war with Japan following Pearl Harbor — and this time, hers was the only no vote. She thought consistency demanded it. Visitors in the Capitol were so outraged that she had to hide in a phone booth afterward.
In the century since Rankin first won her seat, more than 300 women have served as members of the House or the Senate. As their presence has become more routine, and as broader cultural norms have shifted, the negative stereotypes of women in politics have ebbed.
A Pew survey conducted in 2014 found that Americans think that on the whole, women and men make equally good political leaders. In national surveys, voters evaluate the women and men running for Congress in their districts similarly. And they don’t appear to change who they vote for based on a candidate’s sex.
The idea of “women’s issues” as separate from “men’s issues” still lingers, though. More than a third of respondents to that Pew survey said women are better at dealing with education and health (only 3 percent said the opposite), and a similar share said men are better on national security and defense (only 5 percent gave women the edge). There’s also a widely held expectation that women are more skilled at working out compromises, which puts a positive spin on the notion that women are less aggressive than men but is no more grounded a generalization.
“Sometimes people view women as lacking the stereotypical directive and assertive qualities of good leaders — that is, as not being tough enough or not taking charge,” social psychologist Alice H. Eagly wrote in 2007. “Sometimes people dislike female leaders who display these very directive and assertive qualities because such women seem unfeminine — that is, just like a man or like an iron lady.”
Stereotypes of women at the highest levels of government have been most stubbornly persistent, in the United States and elsewhere. Texas A&M political scientists Michael T. Koch and Sarah A. Fulton describe “credibility challenges” for these women. They write, “Compared to their female counterparts in the legislature, female executives occupy more masculinized leadership positions, which may encourage them to be overly hawkish in their foreign policy behavior in an attempt to surmount gender stereotypes that depict women as weak and passive.”
Their 2011 study of 22 countries over 30 years found that, while female legislators tend to resist military spending and the use of military force more than their male counterparts, women in executive office are just the opposite. On average, they increase military spending by more than 3 percent and are more bellicose in their foreign policy.
Three women who led their countries through times of conflict — Israel’s Golda Meir, India’s Indira Gandhi and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher — all displayed a “masculine,” hard-nosed attitude, notes a 2010 study on women’s leadership styles by political scientists Farida Jalalzai and Mona Lena Krook. Further, the authors point out, none of those three had any particular interest in addressing “women’s issues.” They were about as far from Rankin’s sensibility as you could imagine.
In the United States, the (admittedly few) women who have held prominent foreign policy posts have tended to meld the two approaches: speaking up for what are sometimes considered women’s concerns while taking a hard stance on national security questions.
Madeleine Albright, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and the first female secretary of state, argued that women’s issues had to be central to American foreign policy, and she pushed the idea that rape should be considered a weapon of war . She also argued with then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell over intervention in the Balkans: “What are you saving this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?” She acknowledges in her memoir: “I found it hard to argue with Powell about the proper way to employ American force. Even though I was a member of the Principals Committee, I was a mere female civilian.”
During the George W. Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice injected concern for women’s rights and health into her roles as national security adviser and secretary of state. She argued for a presidential initiative to fight sex slavery, for leadership training for women in the Middle East and for rape crisis centers in Darfur. But she also became known as the administration’s “warrior princess.” She advocated “preemptive action” if the United States felt threatened. And her legacy is most closely associated with the Iraq War.
A nd then there’s Clinton, who in her presidential campaign has played up her commitment to children and families, while also frequently mentioning her role in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden.
When Clinton was elected to the Senate from New York in 2000, she had an ambitious agenda of issues concerning health care and women and children. She had staked out a clear role as an advocate of women’s rights — at home and abroad — as early as 1995, with a speech in Beijing where she argued that “women’s rights are human rights.”
But less than a year into her first term came 9/11, followed by Bush’s buildup to the war in Iraq, and, much like Jeannette Rankin, Clinton was forced to confront an entirely different agenda. Although it is her vote for war that everyone remembers, when she voted in October 2002 to authorize military force, she said she was casting the vote to give Bush a strong hand when he went to the United Nations seeking support on the Iraq issue. It was a way, she said, to make a diplomatic solution more likely. She cautioned Bush: “Use these powers wisely, and as a last resort.”
It was also a way for Clinton to avoid appearing soft on Middle Eastern despotism. She would further burnish her national security credentials by accepting a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee and, when she was secretary of state, by cultivating relationships with key members of the military brass. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was impressed when, in a February 2009 meeting, Clinton dismissed any symbolic concessions to Russia, saying, “I’m not giving up anything for nothing.” Gates later told the New York Times: “I thought, ‘This is a tough lady.’ ”
Some conservatives — including Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, but emphatically not including Trump himself — have accused Clinton of being too soft on Russia for pursuing a “reset” in relations in 2009. That might amuse Russian President Vladimir Putin, who directly accused her of fomenting protests against him in Moscow and against his client in Ukraine in the years to follow.
Of course, Clinton’s tough stances have not always served her well domestically. Her Iraq War vote helped her lose the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. And her embrace of intervention while secretary of state has provided plenty of fodder for critics in this campaign.
Could the country elevate to its highest office a woman who would proudly say she was not as tough as a man? For her whole life, Rankin maintained that you couldn’t fight an ideology with bullets. That’s what impelled her, at the age of 87, to lead a women’s march on Washington against the war in Vietnam. Perhaps when we have seen more women in prominent national security roles, we will see more women comfortable taking that position. But in 2016, we’re not so far from 1916 on that question.