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The Feminist Reawakening

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Once you get into the working world, however, even if you view that world as fundamentally equitable, you understand what it means to be bound by one’s gender, for gender to always be an issue. “It’s just a vibe when you’re a woman and you walk into a room and you’re in a position of power and you have to convince them of something,” a movie producer told me. “You’re constantly juggling: When you’re soft, you’re too soft; when you’re strong, you’re too strong. It’s a struggle in business and a struggle in relationships. It’s always a struggle.” Many professional women thus empathize with Clinton. It’s not so much that they’ve experienced such blatant sexism—in today’s corporations, even the most odious boss tends to be leashed—but that they know well the ways that gender complicates the workplace, and can relate to the struggle to balance femininity and toughness. Many have faced a version of her quintessential quandary: They may be more likable, more approachable, when playing to notions of traditional femininity (mother, wife, victim), but this doesn’t fly in the workplace. “To try to hide her womanliness or enhance it—that’s a decision Obama would never have to make,” said one woman. “I’m not saying it’s harder to be a woman. It’s just a choice she has to make that he doesn’t.”

In the public realm, women are frequently subjected to a sort of bodily lit-crit, where dress and demeanor are read as symbolic of femininity or a lack thereof. We have seen this with Hillary: Her current pantsuits, her erstwhile headbands, that sliver of cleavage, have all generated much speculation. Geraldine Ferraro told me that the scrutiny hasn’t changed all that much from a quarter-century ago. “When I ran for VP, they said, ‘You have to wear a jacket’—I was going to wear a short-sleeved dress. They said, ‘We haven’t seen that with a VP candidate before,’ and I said, ‘I don’t care, you haven’t seen a woman candidate before.’ ” Professional women, too, experience a version of this and tend to be acutely aware of the assumptions that can arise from their choices. Do you wear the glasses to the interview, or take them off? Button up the jacket, or leave it open? Pull the hair up, or leave it down? Allow a hint of sexiness to wink at the male interviewer or recruiter or boss, or go the androgynous route? For women in clubby, male-dominated industries, like banking and consulting, the objective is often to appear more masculine (and ward off the suspicion that you will someday procreate and thus become professionally unviable). “They cultivate a hard edge, pressing to be more masculine in their manner and the way they deal with people,” the management consultant told me. “They develop a reputation for being cutthroat, for being hard, even harder than men, for having exacting standards. If I think of the women I know who have gone into banking, their personalities have changed; there’s a difference in their whole bearing.”

But some intrinsically female characteristics are more complicated to manipulate. One’s voice, for instance: Clinton’s flat, nasal, and, lately, hoarse voice has not fared well against Obama’s rich baritone. The pundits have repeatedly labeled her shrill—another criticism that is only ever made of a woman. The sound of a woman’s voice is among the most important factors determining her success. Margaret Thatcher famously lowered her pitch on the advice of a spin doctor, and she’s not the only one. A study that compared female voices between 1945 and 1993 found that, in the latter half of the century, as young women entered the workforce in increasing numbers, their voices deepened, with the average pitch decreasing about 23 hertz. Think of that “career-woman voice” donned, consciously or not, by so many working women in Manhattan. A high, reedy, or uncertain voice can stall a woman’s ascent. When my former (female) boss told me I needed to work on “presentational confidence,” I concentrated on making my voice, and speech, more commanding.

Another way women attempt to transcend stereotypes is through what Linda Hirshman calls “the dancing backwards in high heels thing”—or, working harder than any man presumably would. Nearly all the women I spoke to referred to the feeling that one can confound perceived gender limitations by doing a more thorough job, being smarter, better informed, better researched. I think of it as the studying-for-extra-credit approach. The idea is that we can shift the focus from the arbitrary, personal criteria by which we are evaluated—whether we have children or not, are married or not, are warm enough, or too cold, or too calculating, or overly ambitious—onto our achievements. But it doesn’t necessarily happen that way, as many of us, including Hillary Clinton, have learned. It turns out that even the tendency to overprepare is gendered (to borrow a term from the women’s-studies crowd) in the popular perception. Clinton is portrayed as a Tracey Flick type, as one of those girls: the ones actually studying in study hall. In real life, that gets you elected class secretary or VP of operations, but never the No. 1 spot. “Leadership” is more effortless, an assumed mantle of authority, confidence that doesn’t need a PowerPoint presentation to back it up. But it’s difficult to imagine this traditionally male archetype—embodied in Obama’s easy manner and unscripted, often overly general approach—working for a woman in the same way it does for a man. “There’s no way you could put his words, his message, in her mouth and get away with it,” said one of the women I spoke with. “If you took his campaign message, his speeches, his everything and you put it on her, she’d be fucked.”


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