PHOTO: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in a debate in Michigan, March 6, 2016
Radhika Sanghani writes for the Daily Telegraph, with contributions from EA:
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were in the middle of a Democratic presidential debate when Twitter erupted with cries of Sanders being sexist.
“That was Bernie Sanders talking down to Hillary Clinton,” wrote one user. “Every woman watching the #DemDebate cringed when Bernie shushed Hillary this way,” said another. While others just shouted: “So sexist!”
So what was Sanders’ crime? Did he come out with a comment worthy of Donald Trump? Did he tell Clinton to “calm down dear” like the UK’s own leader, David Cameron?
No. He interrupted her. Simple as.
The two were discussing the Wall Street bailout when Sanders accused “some of Hillary’s friends” of “destroying this economy”. She started to interject saying “you know” when Sanders put up his hand and said, “Excuse me, I’m talking.”
It is easy to see why people have called it sexist. It was a cutting moment where Clinton was forced to let Sanders speak and he asserted himself all over the stage. At a time where public consciousness about women being given a voice is high, it’s understandable that people have suggested he was doing the classic male thing of asserting his dominance.
Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman agrees that men drowning out women’s voices is common in political debates: “Men have an inbuilt advantage over women in public speaking because their voices are often stronger and more resonant,” she explains.
“So it’s easy to get drowned out as a woman, or worse, to raise your voice and merit the ultimate chauvinist put-down that you’re being ‘shrill’. I’ve seen far worse examples of sexism than this, but the danger for any male politician is that silencing your female opponent looks rather patronizing.”
This is clearly what Sanders has been accused of, but is it really justified? Was he asserting himself as a privileged white man, or would he have said the exact same thing to a male opponent?
Scott Lucas, professor of US politics at the University of Birmingham, thinks it’s the latter: “It’s not a question of a man shushing a woman. I think we’re bringing the gender dynamic in to a situation that would have happened with two men. Take the last Republican debate – they were all speaking over the top of each other. Finally Ted Cruz said to Donald Trump, ‘Just breathe Donald. Just breathe’. Had Sanders said that to Clinton, it would have been far more patronising.”
Lucas thinks that as a society, we’re reading too much into the gender angle because there are so few women in high up positions that firstly, we want to make sure there is no discrimination against any women who try, and secondly, because we’re just not used to seeing these kinds of debates.
When Clinton was fighting against Barack Obama in the last elections, his ethnicity effectively overpowered her gender. The possible reality of having a black President was stronger than that of a female President, and so the candidates generally fought without accusations of sexism.
Now that both Clinton and Sanders are white, with the major difference being gender, that’s what people are picking up on. But in doing so, they’re putting Clinton into a ‘female victim’ box that she really doesn’t belong in.
Hillary’s Strength, Not Weakness
Clinton’s attempt to interrupt Sanders showed that she is a strong assertive woman who is confident enough to interrupt her rival. As Lucas points out, “Sanders had to defend himself against that.” He sees the interaction as proof of Clinton’s strength.
“Taking gender out of the question, she was trying to interrupt his flow and define her space,” he explains, comparing it to something Margaret Thatcher would have done. “Thatcher never had anyone talk down to her because she wouldn’t allow it. Hillary Clinton in the same way, though she’s not nearly as charismatic, is very good at defining space and that’s exactly that she was doing.”
On International Women’s Day, it’s important that as a society we are recognizing inequality and discrimination against women. But there’s a danger in seeing it where it doesn’t exist. Even though there are undeniably issues with men drowning out women’s voices in the workplace, Sanders’ interruption to Clinton is not one of them.
She’s an experienced politician and a robust woman who has interrupted men plenty of times during her career and will undoubtedly continue to do so. If we really want to look at gender issues in politics, we’d be better off leaving Sanders and Clinton to debate in peace and start questioning how the hell someone like Trump can get away with being such a sexist pig.