I have obsessively followed politics, especially presidential races, for decades. I watched the Challenger shuttle explode in 1986 while sitting in my kindergarten class. We were watching because the Challenger carried Christa McAuliffe, a woman set to be the first teacher in space. I remember the nuns, who were our teachers, weeping openly as president Ronald Reagan said these brave astronauts slipped "the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."
I admit I cried when Reagan left the White House in 1988 because I knew he wouldn't be the president anymore. Apparently, I didn't really understand how the presidency works. I grew up without a father, so perhaps that explains my attachment the affable old fella. I also realized at that time that if we were going to constantly recast the role of president, I wanted to be in on the audition.
My obsession became my vocation when the (now-defunct) 20dc hired me as a full-time political reporter in 2008. Until then, politics had been something like a sport, where I could pick a team and cheer (or jeer) with everyone else. As a reporter, I had to check the facts and also check my own biases to ensure that my reporting and analyses treated politicians fairly.
Yet, there's always a moment where these controversial national figures become avuncular goofballs I just can't help but like. Usually, brief humanizing moments, like Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on "The Arsenio Hall Show" or George W. Bush chest-bumping West Point graduates in 2007, persuaded me.
When Hillary Clinton announced her presidential run in April 2015, I realized I couldn't think of any similar humanizing moments about her. I didn't like her — and I didn't know why.
I didn't full-out hate her, but I felt only numbness and disdain when it came to Hillary — and for no glaring reason. She has dedicated her life to public service, worked to get results while serving in her myriad positions, and never faced scandals like Bush or her husband. So why did I like those men, but feel disdain toward Mrs. Clinton?
Here's what I've realized: It's not political radicalism or bitter partisanship that has made conservatives, some on the progressive left, and everyday voters hate Hillary Clinton so much. The answer is surprisingly simple and also the one easiest for skeptics to dismiss: Sexism.
Hillary Clinton's political life has been steeped in sexism because of her unorthodox path to national prominence. While her detractors may not hate her specifically because she is a woman, America's overall treatment of women who seek power make it easy.
She entered public life in 1977 as the wife of the attorney general of Arkansas and later, in 1979, as the state's first lady. Yet, she challenged the social expectations of a politician's wife immediately, in part because she kept her maiden name.
"When they say nothing, there's a problem. When they say something, there's an even greater problem. And...it reinforces the notion that a political wife should just step into the background and don't say anything that's controversial."
Clinton defied all of these rules.
The published legal scholar continued working as the sole female attorney at the influential Rose Law Firm, even amid her husband's political success. In 1983, she led a successful policy push to reform education in the state. In 1988, she publicly decried sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace for women, which was even more controversial than it is today.
"[Sexism] may not happen to every woman lawyer every day, but somewhere, it happens," she said during her first appearance on "Good Morning America," after she'd been named head of the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession.
She continued this unflinching rejection of the role of demure politician's wife during her husband's first presidential run. "I'm not sitting here some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette," she said on "60 Minutes" in January 1992.
At a campaign event two months later, Clinton said, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession which I entered before my husband was in private life." The wives of Southern governors just didn't say such things, let alone one whose husband sought the White House — and the media let her know.
For the first time, Clinton became the target of campaign ire in the media. "The cookies-and-tea stereotype is elitism in action," William Saffire wrote in The New York Times.
TIME put her on a cover, but the headline pondered if Clinton was "helping or hurting her husband."
When Clinton became first lady of the United States, she seemed more interested in the policy side of governing than the typical president’s wife. First ladies are 'supposed' to be high-level homemakers who serve as caregivers — not policymakers. They're supposed to stand slightly behind and to the left of their husbands.
Hillary Clinton wasn't the first president's wife to be politically active in a substantive way. That honor goes to Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet, Clinton built on the Roosevelt model and tried to leverage her First Ladyship into a position with real political power. That's why she became the first president's wife to have an office in the West Wing of the White House.
Hillary Clinton took the lead on Bill's administration's effort to enact universal healthcare for Americans, which made her a political target for both Republicans and the health insurance lobby.
While that effort failed, she and late senator Ted Kennedy instituted a public health insurance program for children in 1997. In 1999, she led a public and behind-the-scenes campaign to ensure that individual states instituted the program.
She ruffled feathers in her husband's administration as well, like when she addressed the Fourth Women's Conference in Beijing, China in 1995.
"Every woman deserves the chance to realize her own God-given potential, but we must recognize that women will never gain full dignity until their human rights are respected and protected," she said. Clinton went on to chastise the killing of infant girls because of the "one-child" policy in China. She criticized the domestic abuse, rape, and murder of women when arranged marriages fall apart.
Her harsh rebuke angered president Clinton's administration. They thought her comments could make U.S.-China relations more tense than they already were.
Some press outlets saw the First Lady as a public servant invested in her husband and the causes important to Americans and people around the world. Yet, others painted her as a problem-child in the administration, a politician beyond the control of the president or his advisers.
She couldn't win-over sexists even when her husband had the glaring spotlight on him. In the aftermath of Bill's very public affair with Monica Lewinsky, Hillary Clinton had record-high favorability ratings — but it evaporated when she chose to run for the New York senate.
Some Americans were outraged when she announced her decision to seek political office in 2000. Apparently, they had very specific ideas about how a former first lady should behave. Former first ladies are supposed to mind their husband's legacy, like Nancy Reagan, or serve as symbolic advocates for singular issues, like Betty Ford. They were most certainly not supposed to aspire to hold the office their husbands once did.
Others speculated that she only ran to uphold the Clinton "legacy." During a debate in September 2000, late journalist Tim Russert questioned Clinton's defense of her husband during the investigation into his affair with Lewinsky.
Russert grilled her about whether or not she knowingly lied about her husband’s affair because she wanted to run for senate. It had nothing to do with her public record or policy positions, but became the defining characteristic of her political career: the opportunist who stayed with a cheating husband because of his proximity to power.
Ironically, this debate soured Clinton's momentum at a time when her public favorability rating piqued at its highest. She'd been depicted as a jilted wife, which definitely came with sympathy. That sympathy evaporated when she decided to become New York's first female senator, instead of taking her "proper" place in public life.
The early-internet blog Rightgrrl even dismissed Clinton's mothering skills. The blog said having Chelsea involved in the campaign, as most political children are, seemed like "borderline child abuse." Rightgrrl said the first daughter had a "frozen smile on her face that never quite reaches her eyes."
Media called Clinton a "carpet-bagger," since she ran for a senate seat in a state she'd never lived in. New York Magazine called her ambition "ridiculous" and quoted a senate Democrat saying there's "not a chance in Hell" she could win.
The right dismissed her, but so did her fellow Democrats. Many, including The Village Voice's Peter Noel, argued that Clinton only offered empty rhetoric to win votes.
"Since coming to New York, Mrs. Clinton has learned to play the game of divide and conquer, especially when it involves Blacks and Jews," Noel wrote in October 2000.
At the time, I wasn't a reporter, but a newly-minted soldier in the army reserves deployed to Bosnia in support of the NATO peacekeeping mission there. We couldn't access much news, so I just accepted that negative narrative about Clinton. I didn't give her much thought, but if I had been paying attention, I would have seen an impressive body of work from a first-term senator.
A look at Clinton's record in the senate shows a results-oriented legislative strategy built on bipartisanship, even if they were imperfect proposals. She certainly wasn't some radical socialist looking to upend the system, but the conservative press treated her as such.
"Hillary Clinton is a hardened socialist, despite the mainstream media's efforts to portray her as a 'centrist' merely because she is not as over-a-cliff-Left as Michael Moore or Move On patron, George Soros," journalist Deroy Murdock wrote for The National Review in 2007.
This claim is ludicrous, but also shows how much the caricature of Clinton created by the right-leaning press shapes people's attitudes about her. Her conservative senate colleagues found Clinton to be a diligent worker, eager to compromise, and not a hyper-partisan.
Yet, the conservative press used coded and explicitly-sexist language to discuss Clinton's senate tenure.
In that 2007 National Review article, Murdock called Clinton "the Duchess of Chappaqua" and wrote that her political aspirations are full of "blonde ambition." Conservative shock-jocks Don Imus and Glenn Beck called her a "buck-toothed witch" and the literal devil. Conservative columnists also bashed Clinton for not having "sex appeal" and being "angry" and "shrill."
Perhaps this is why there are far fewer women in politics than there should be, considering that women are 50.8% of the population. Women make up less than 20% of representative in the U.S. House, according to the Center for American Women in Politics. They make up exactly 20% of all senators.
It doesn't get much better on the state level: Women make up less than 20% of mayors. Women occupy less than a quarter of the seats in all of the state legislatures and senates. There are only six female governors, 12 lieutenant governors, and only 58 in state executive leadership roles.
"I had a pair of jeans that I wore to a legislative softball game and there were a number of my colleagues that would come up to me every day and say, 'When are you gonna put those tight jeans on again?'" Missouri senator Claire McCaskill told Cosmopolitan in 2015.
In her book, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand said a male colleague warned her about getting "porky." Another male colleague groped her and told her not to "lose too much weight" because he likes his girls "chubby."
Sexism is undoubtedly the reason Clinton's often been depicted as a politically-ambitious woman only concerned about her own appearance and glory, despite her impressive political record.
For instance, like most women in public life, Clinton has been criticized for her appearance. As evidence, one need only Google the words "Hillary Clinton" and "pantsuit." A 2007 article in The Washington Post admitted it would be "highly regressive" to suggest she wore pantsuits to appear "as tough as a man," but that's precisely what they did.
"What would possess a woman to wear a jacket the color of a geranium in full bloom and then imply she doesn't want anyone to notice or comment on her clothes?" fashion criticRobin Givhan wrote in The Post.
"Yes, a woman can still be taken seriously, viewed as tough and celebrated for her ideas even if she is wearing a sunshine yellow suit. But someone, somewhere, is also going to notice that she is dressed like a solar flare," she added.
Of course, she's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. That same year, Clinton wore a dress with a plunging neckline, so The Washington Post, MSNBC, and CNBC devoted extensive coverage to her "cleavage."
In 2008, Harper's Bazaar ran a gallery piece called "Dressing Mrs. President," which they claim isn't sexist, but rather a point of "pride" because Clinton would "craft our international image." They wanted their first female president to cut a "a captivating [image]: powerful, smart, and stylish."
In a 2010 article for The Daily Beast, Kate Betts wrote that unlike Michelle Obama, Clinton "can’t mix style with substance" and should stick to "power pantsuits." Still, the sexist commentary about her appearance doesn't just stop at her wardrobe.
This "pantsuit" criticism has become so ingrained in America's consciousness that Jimmy Fallon joked on The Tonight Show that if Chelsea Clinton's first child is a boy, "it’ll get some of Hillary’s [hand-me-downs]."
Even before Clinton declared her candidacy in 2015, this sort of commentary about her clothes, her facial expressions, her voice, and her hairstyle had been everywhere. Male candidates are evaluated on their records or public statements, but these important topics take a backseat to whatever the hell a female candidate is wearing.
America saw that firsthand during her 2008 presidential campaign.
A mishmash of sexist tropes dominated the election: The media questioned the legitimacy of Clinton's marriage and her sexuality. Some said she's too emotional to be president while others claimed she's not emotional enough to connect with voters like past executives-in-chief. She's simultaneously too-devoted a grandmother to fully focus on national affairs and also a loveless woman who views her grandchildren as political props.
A 2009 paper examined the press coverage of both Clinton and 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. They discovered that both candidates faced overtly-sexist coverage.
"Palin's attractiveness resulted in frequent and varied references to her 'sexiness;' whereas, Clinton was viewed as not feminine enough in pantsuits that covered her 'cankles,'" authors Diana Carlin and Kelly Winfrey wrote. They, like all political analysts, recognized that both Clinton and Palin had legitimate flaws as candidates, but the coverage of the election relied way too much on misogyny.
This isn't unusual: Throughout history, female presidential candidates have received overall less coverage than male candidates. The coverage they do get disproportionately focuses on their appearance and desirability.
As a keen surveyor of politicians' performance, I fell for almost all of it. I accepted a partisan gig for The Pittsburgh Standard in April 2008, where I wrote an "open letter" to Pennsylvania voters.
In the regrettable-in-hindsight essay, I wrote that then-senator Clinton was "routinely disingenuous" and said she had a "duplicitous nature." As evidenced above, if I had bother to research her record in the senate, I would have discovered that wasn't the case.
However, we'd just had eight years under president George W. Bush's administration where governance fed into D.C.'s incessant campaign culture. I hoped that would change (it didn't), so I bought the caricature of Clinton as a devious political schemer. Even as a purported expert on political spin, perhaps it's easy for me to criticize Clinton because of how dismissive we are to women in general.
Female politicians are often judged by much different standards than their male counterparts. The current race is a prime example. A man with no political experience who's a literal member of the rich elite is seen as an equivalent and more populist choice than Clinton, whose political qualifications are unmatched in modern history.
Sexism has also denied Clinton political agency. She's been called a puppet for her Wall Street Donors (or worse). She's been blamed for all the mistakes equally attributable to the men she's served alongside. She has been called shrill, manipulative, and a power-hungry bitch.
A male politician with the same qualities, beloved or reviled, would likely be called driven and commanding with a keen mind for strategy. Some politicians have even questioned if Clinton, the wife of a former president, can legally run for public office.
So, Clinton a woman in a gender-biased game like politics had to seek the approval of establishment forces to attain the support and political capital needed for a presidential run.
This brings me to the most mind-boggling critique of Clinton I've seen from the progressive left. Bernie Sanders supporters have called the nominee the embodiment of the establishment and the status quo. Aversive sexism is the only reason why progressive Bernie Boosters are so eager to deny any of her liberal bona fides.
Many have rightfully praised senator Sanders for being rooted in his principles his entire career. Yet, he never had to justify his place in power like Clinton or any woman, who often rely on alliances with male political figures to get results.
For example, if she left the senate with Sanders' legislative record, her time there would be seen as decidedly unsuccessful. Clinton had to form alliances with Republicans, like Sam Brownback and Rick Santorum, and Democrats, like Patrick Leahy, to get results in the chamber. These associations were meant to validate her place as a political leader, but many are using them to brand her an establishment hack.
Of course, Hillary Clinton is deserving of scrutiny and critique. She's a woman who wants to hold the most powerful office in the country, which makes her even more deserving of criticism.
Yet, political reporters can't afford to get lost in the sexist weeds when reporting on Clinton. Right-wing bloggers and respected conservative publications have argued that it's not important to have a female president. The potential dual-woman ticket of Clinton and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren was seen as a "risk" because sexist voters can't handle two women at the same time. Voters in the "rust belt" of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana expressed reticence to PBS Newshour about voting for a woman.
The day after Clinton made history as the first woman to be nominated for president by a major party, newspapers across the country featured pictures of Bill Clinton instead of her.
America is certainly less sexist now than before, thanks to the tireless efforts of brave patriots who realized that even though women were deliberately left out at the onset, the country's ideals belong to women as much as it does men.
The battle still isn't won though.
Donald Trump is a rabid sexist, making his antiquated perception of women's roles a "feature" in his candidacy. Some of his supporters embrace this attitude and see it as permission to give voice to every reprehensible thought that wanders into their minds.
Yet, it's not just some small segment of troglodytes who are vulnerable to sexism, it's everyone. Research has shown that even those who firmly believe they aren't sexists get caught in its clutches.
I'm no different. As someone who makes his living wading through political bullshit, I harbored suspicions and dislike for Clinton based on rumor, innuendo, and the framing of the conversation. I'm not sure exactly when I realized I got it wrong, but the more research I do into her background and record, the clearer it becomes that sexism clouded my perception.
I evaluated Clinton by standards I did not hold her male colleagues to.
Sexism is so pervasive and insidious in our national political attitudes that its been used to vilify and devalue a woman who has stepped beyond the role society crafted for her. And so far, it has worked. Polls have consistently shown voters find Clinton just as or even less trustworthy than Trump.
It's hard to blame voters for this. In the aftermath of this election, we in the press have to evaluate much about how our coverage contributed to the outcomes of the primary and, ultimately, the general elections. Yet, if even reporters and experts fall victim to tired, sexist arguments, what hope do people they're supposed to inform have?
However the election plays out on November 8th, there is no denying that Hillary Clinton's nomination is historic and a national moment every American should take pride in.
My hope is that when the charged emotions of the campaign fade away like a bad acid trip, we can honestly and unflinchingly look back at what all Clinton had surmount to earn that accomplishment.
Doing so will ensure that Clinton's legacies inspire female leaders of the future, like my teenage daughter who is passionate about the environment and human rights, who see her achievement and aspire to it.
Lastly, I hope those women, who will likely save us, are greeted with a much warmer reception when they take the national stage.
Main Image: Wikimedia Commons