While it could easily be argued that primaries always get dirty, the tenor of recent statements has, for this blogger, hit a little too close to home.
From Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver’s, suggestion that Hillary Clinton’s “ambition” could ruin the Democratic party to an appearance on the campaign trail by Sanders himself, who proceeded to call Clinton “unqualified” to be president, a position Donald Trump was quick to echo, this week represented a significant change in tone. It unfolded as Sanders supporters launched a superdelegate doxxing campaign through a website originally called the “Superdelegate Hit List” – a move that shares discomforting similarities with violent anti-choice movements and Gamergate alike.
Some, like journalist Paul Krugman of the New York Times, worry about the impact of these statements on political discourse and the outcome of the election after the primary ends. My concerns are significantly more gendered.
In the fallout from Sanders’ commentary on Clinton’s qualifications, Five Thirty Eight pointed out that most women don’t need any help believing they lack the qualifications to run for office – not to mention the highest office in the country.
One study found that twenty-eight percent of prospective female candidates believed that they “weren’t qualified at all” to run for office, while only 12 percent of their male counterparts could even identify “some way” they might be unqualified for the same political pursuit. Those men were twice as likely to express a confident belief in their qualifications for running. Interestingly, another study found that over twenty years of successful female candidates were actually “more qualified” than their male counterparts. This is, most likely, because they knew that women face a different level of scrutiny than men when they run for office. This combination of barriers makes women “election averse,” according to yet another study on the subject.
From Canada to Great Britain, from Norway to the United States, studies have grappled with perceptions of female ambition. Seemingly countless researchers have found that the combination of being female and ambitious is an incredibly perilous position to occupy.
While it is entirely possible that neither Sanders nor his campaign manager fully understood the impact of their word choice, it is a luxury to be able to claim ignorance of the gendered implications of these statements. The ability to hurl “ambition” at Clinton as an insult is proof positive of the gendered fault lines that remain hidden just beneath the surface of the Democratic party, and it echoes the conflict that has plagued progressive movements throughout our nation’s history.
And what does it mean for us, the women who aren’t Hillary Clinton, who haven’t served as Senators or Secretaries of State, that even her qualifications can be called into serious question – by people from her own party? What does it mean when her ambition is burdened with the potential to destroy a party she has spent decades working to build? What does it mean for the women who do not have access to Clinton’s substantial privileges, as they consider running for the school board, the city council, or the state legislature that even Clinton cannot escape this double bind?
Should these women beat the odds simply to believe that they are qualified enough to run for office, they will then face stigma and distrust for having the ambition to actually go for it.
Equity in representation is not a guarantee. And as long as our male peers in the progressive movement claim ignorance of the impact of their ambition, which so often comes at our expense, we will have to add walking this tightrope to the long list of qualifications we must have under our belt before we even begin to try.