The Wall of Words: Hillary Clinton and the Verbal Assault Against Women Online

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

Our stated mission as #HillaryMen founders is to “provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics.” Under that rubric, we are committed to speaking the hard truths about the verbal abuse of women in the public sphere. Specifically, we want to examine the nexus between the constant torrent of invective directed at Hillary Clinton and the larger problem of psychological violence against women.

The dizzying array of dehumanizing and demeaning terms targeting Hillary in recent weeks (Machiavellian, Lovecraftian, slithering, monstrous, imperious, musty, petulant, paranoid, stale, scornful, regal, devious, deceitful, robotic, abnormal, etc.) is a concrete manifestation of the gender barrier in American politics. It constitutes a “wall of words” blocking her path to the presidency.

One of Hillary's fundamental obstacles as a woman trying to break the 44-0 shutout in national politics is to overcome that wall of words. Though largely unacknowledged, that wall was part of the reason her 2008 presidential bid was unsuccessful.

There is a larger dynamic at play. The rise of social media has fostered a cauldron of misogyny, where psychological violence against women is commonplace. The verbal abuse directed at Hillary – and let's not pretend some of these attacks are anything other than abuse – is a permutation of that problem.

Jessica Valenti makes the direct connection between woman-hating "trolls" and the assault on Hillary:

When I visit college campuses, young women always ask me how I deal with negativity online – and how they can. The students I speak to increasingly feel like they have to consider, before choosing a career path or posting an opinion in a public forum, whether they can cope with violently sexist responses and a never-ending barrage of misogynistic bullshit.

If anyone knows the answer to their questions, it’s Hillary Clinton. Her career has long epitomized how misogyny can haunt female politicians ... She has too often been the target of insults based on men’s fear about powerful women – an unenviable position that few can understand.

26% of young women polled said they had been stalked online and 25% were sexually harassed online. A 2006 study from the University of Maryland showed that internet users with female-sounding usernames were 25 times more likely to receive sexually explicit and threatening messages.

The online harassment of women is not likely to end anytime soon; neither is the sexism that targets Clinton.

Misogyny and sexism thrive online. Feminists like Valenti deal with venomous trolls on a daily basis. It is a testament to their courage and dedication that they are able to work while facing vicious verbal attacks that often cross over into real-world physical threats.

Without firsthand experience, some may be reluctant to call the online attacks against women "psychological violence." It is that and more.

According to the UN, "violence against women takes many forms – physical, sexual, psychological and economic. These forms of violence are interrelated and affect women from before birth to old age."

In the case of Hillary, the rage-filled language of trolls is echoed in the mainstream, barely watered down, flooding coverage and commentary with terminology that would never be tolerated for a male candidate. Certainly not at the scale that Hillary faces.

Two important clarifications:

  • In no way are we arguing that people shouldn’t criticize Hillary, disagree with her ideas, or generally dislike her. 
  • We are not claiming that every negative adjective used to describe Hillary or other female public figures reflects gender bias, sexism or misogyny.

Our focus is on language that crosses the line from criticism to character assassination, which is lamentably common in the case of Hillary. The spectrum of adverse terminology used against her spans everything from “polarizing” to “monster.” Clearly, the former is not in the same category as the latter. However, as with any spectrum, the shadings blur and the line between appropriate criticism and unwarranted gender-based attacks is too often crossed.

Identifying this wall of words is important because the political gender barrier is insidious, revealing itself in results, not actions. It is not easy to pinpoint specific reasons Hillary is at a disadvantage because of her gender. She is powerful, popular, and successful. She is ahead in public polls and is running a disciplined campaign with a viable chance to win the election.

It is tempting to get lulled into a sense that the 2016 race is a level playing field for all candidates. Far from it. 

As we wrote recently:

Viewing the 2016 election through an explicit gender lens, the ferocious attacks against Hillary are not just about her, but underscore the deeply ingrained resistance to any woman with a viable path to the White House. Does anyone believe that another female candidate could get within reach of the presidency without running headlong into the same double standard and institutional resistance confronting Hillary?

Spotlighting the gender aspect of the 2016 race [means] acknowledging the political, social and cultural barriers that have resulted in a complete shut out in national U.S. politics, at 44-0. In nearly a quarter millennium, not a single woman has occupied our nation's highest office. As Katha Pollitt observes:

At this point in world history, it is embarrassing how backward the United States is. More than 70 women have been chosen to lead their nations, including in gender-conservative countries like Pakistan, Ireland, and the Philippines—and 22 nations have female leaders right now. What is the matter with us? Indeed, we score poorly on every measure of women in politics: not quite 20 percent in Congress (which places us 72nd internationally, between Kenya and Panama); 24 percent in state legislatures; only 17 mayors in the top 100 most populous cities; and only six governors out of 50.

It is not an accident or coincidence that the woman with the best chance to cross the White House finish line faces a constant stream of invective, a near-manic desire to take her down. That is the gender barrier in action. It is the use of words as weapons, with the objective of preventing a woman from attaining the top rung of the political power ladder.

We conclude with an observation about the mindset of Hillary’s attackers, who convey the impression that they are somehow freethinking and original by virtue of the colorful adjectives they lob at her. In fact, they are unoriginal and uncreative, parroting a legion of other Hillary detractors, traversing a well-worn path of memes and narratives concocted by GOP oppo researchers:

In recent weeks, Crossroads [brainchild of Karl Rove and other leading Republican strategists] has begun carving a niche for itself in attacking Hillary Rodham Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner. The group will use polling data and opposition research to paint her as “a typical politician who would say or do anything to get elected,” said Steven Law, president of Crossroads.

It is far more interesting and original to avoid reinforcing the gender barrier and to eschew the sexist language of trolls than to be a mindless meme-spreader. Better to tear down the wall of words blocking a woman's path than to add another stone to it.

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Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.