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Column: The Double Bind Trapping Hillary Clinton, and Women Who Lead



For The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Now we know that Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright don’t actually think that anyone should vote for Hillary Clinton simply because she’s a woman. Does that mean we can forget about Clinton’s gender? I don’t think so. But the question we face is subtler, more complicated and harder to address than “Do I vote for her because she’s a woman?” Rather, it’s “Can I be sure I’m judging this candidate accurately, given the double bind that confronts all women in positions of authority?”

A double bind is far worse than a straightforward damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma. It requires you to obey two mutually exclusive commands: Anything you do to fulfill one violates the other. Women running for office, as with all women in authority, are subject to these two demands: Be a good leader! Be a good woman! While the qualities expected of a good leader (be forceful, confident and, at times, angry) are similar to those we expect of a good man, they are the opposite of what we expect of a good woman (be gentle, self-deprecating and emotional, but not angry). Hence the double bind: If a candidate — or manager — talks or acts in ways expected of women, she risks being seen as underconfident or even incompetent. But if she talks or acts in ways expected of leaders, she is likely to be seen as too aggressive and will be subject to innumerable other negative judgments — and epithets — that apply only to women.

An example: Anyone who seeks public office, especially the highest one, must be ambitious, yet that word is rarely applied to male candidates because it goes without saying. And ambition is admirable in a man, but unacceptable — in fact, downright scary — in a woman. Google “Bernie Sanders ambitious,” and you get headlines about the candidate’s “ambitious plans.” Try it with Donald Trump, and you find references to his “ambitious deportation plan” and “ambitious real estate developments.” When the word is used to describe Trump himself, it’s positive, as in “Trump is proud and ambitious, and he strives to excel.”

But pair the word with Hillary Clinton, and a search spews headlines accusing her of “naked ambition,” “unbridled ambition,” “ruthless ambitions” — even of being “pathologically ambitious.” In a spoof, the satirical website the Onion exposed the injustice and absurdity of demonizing a candidate for this requisite quality through its own version of such headlines: “Hillary Clinton Is Too Ambitious to Be the First Female President.”

Robin Lakoff, the linguist who first identified the double bind as it applies to women in her 1975 book Language and Woman’s Place, has pointed out that it accounts for the persistent impressions of Clinton as inauthentic and untrustworthy. We develop these impressions, Lakoff notes, when people don’t talk and act as we think they should, given who they are and what we know about them. In Clinton’s case, she explains, they come precisely from the fact that she has characteristics, such as toughness, that we require of a candidate but that just don’t feel right in a woman.

The trickiest thing about the double bind is that it operates imperceptibly, like shots from a gun with a silencer. “It has nothing to do with gender,” I heard recently. “It’s just that she’s shrill.” When is the last time you heard a man called shrill? “She should stop shouting,” another critic advised. How is a candidate to be heard over the din of a cheering crowd without shouting? Both these comments came from women. Surprising? No. Women are just as likely, if not more likely, to react this way. After all, it’s from peers that girls learn to play down their power lest they be ostracized for being “bossy.”

This helps answer the question that Steinem and Albright brought into focus: Why aren’t more young women (or, more precisely, as Washington Post reporter Janell Ross recently pointed out, young white women) flocking to support the first woman with a serious shot at the presidency? The double bind lowers its boom on women in positions of authority, so those who haven’t yet risen to such positions have not yet felt its full weight. They may well believe (as I did when I was young) that when the time comes, they’ll be judged fairly, based on their qualifications. They probably have not yet experienced the truism that to get equal consideration, a woman has to be better than her male counterparts — just as Clinton is, according to the New York Times editorial endorsing her last month, “one of the most broadly and deeply qualified candidates in modern history.”

Voters of all ages must ask whether the lens through which they view Clinton is being clouded by these invisible yet ubiquitous forces. To make sure they’re seeing clearly, they need to understand — and correct for — the double bind.



Deborah Tannen is a linguistics professor at Georgetown University and the author of Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work.