What’s HRC looking at? Oh….got it. ☕️☕️
— Yashar (@yashar) March 3, 2017
This picture might just be the greatest irony of today’s extraordinarily strange political scene—Hillary Clinton, whose historic presidential campaign was often eclipsed by controversy surrounding her private email server use, reading about how the current vice president did the exact same thing. This is certainly a meme-worthy, cosmic irony. It might even provide a bit of dark comic relief in an increasingly tumultuous political climate; but more than anything, it’s a heartbreaking photograph. It’s sad, poignant, and all too representative of the double standards that plagued Clinton throughout her campaign and continue to harm the women attempting to break “that highest, hardest glass ceiling”.
In October 2015, Bernie Sanders famously stated that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about [Clinton’s] damn emails.” Nevertheless, the email saga continued for over a year. In fact, Google Trends data reveals that the search terms “Hillary emails” and “Clinton emails” reached their peak popularity in the week between October 30 and November 5 2016. Yes, three days before the election, Americans were still talking about the purported email scandal.
Remarkably, Clinton’s use of a private server was not unique among politicians. Even before the Democratic primaries began, the public knew that many others had used private servers in similar fashion, including some of Clinton’s harshest critics: Senator Marco Rubio (R – Ill.) and governors Chris Christie(R – N.J.) and Rick Perry (R – Tex.). Interestingly, President George W. Bush also used a private email server from inside the White House. Yet it was Clinton who took the fall and was crucified for the same actions committed by numerous others, in positions just like hers. One conspicuous difference, however, is that Clinton is female. And, like women everywhere, Clinton has had to fight harder than her opponents to make her actual, substantive policy positions heard.
This is the same tragedy that dogged Clinton on the campaign trail, and obscured her detailed policy discussions. Remember when President Trump attempted to distract from his pussy grab “locker room talk” by calling attention to sexual assault allegations levied against President Bill Clinton? The surrounding media circus put the Hillary For America campaign on the defensive, and shifted the public’s attention towards infidelity in the Clintons’ marriage and whether Bill Clinton was a sexual predator. The strange part—every one of the events in question concerned Bill Clinton, yet it was Hillary running for president. While then-candidate Trump hand-waved his way past taped records of him bragging about sexual assault, Clinton was judged according to the record of her husband, and left wading in a quagmire of scandals that only peripherally concerned her.
Unfortunately, these anecdotes are representative of a broader playing field where women must be more qualified and surmount higher barriers than their male counterparts in order to be taken seriously. Study after study after study has found that women in professional settings are perceived as harsh and controlling when exhibiting behaviors deemed assertive in their male colleagues, while also facing judgement for their physical appearance, and given less credit than their male colleagues for their work.
Ultimately, there is no better example of this institutional undervaluing of women’s professional skills than the new Trump administration, which boasts the most male-dominated cabinet since that of Ronald Reagan. Earlier this week, the story broke that Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, lied to Congress when he claimed to have had no contact with the Russians; in fact, he took multiple meetings with the Russian ambassador. While Sessions will be required to provide written statements on his involvement with Russia, there has been no large-scale outrage, and certainly no public calls for Sessions’ incarceration. When Clinton made mistakes, she acknowledged them in a forthright manner, and has since been repeatedly cleared of any wrongdoing. Despite this, she faced more persecution than it appears Sessions ever will, for actions he committed and then lied about.
While it may be tempting to dismiss this double standard along partisan lines, the contested confirmation of Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, shows the same misogyny. During DeVos’ hearings, a major sticking point was her lack of experience with public education. This is undeniable, and she absolutely lacks the experience needed to be secretary of education. However, this same lack of qualifications was evidently not of concern in the case of Rex Tillerson, Trump’s secretary of state, who has neither government nor diplomatic experience. While both neophytes were eventually confirmed, DeVos, as a female, faced an uphill battle requiring Vice President Pence to cast the first tie-breaking vote in the history of cabinet confirmations. In contrast, Tillerson garnered the requisite votes by a safe margin, even managing to attract a few Democrats to break with party affiliation and vote for his confirmation.
Perhaps the most damning example of this phenomenon in the Trump administration is the Commander-in-Chief himself. Trump has never held a public or military office, yet he managed to ascend to the presidency over the head of Clinton—a former U.S. senator, secretary of state and First Lady of both the state of Arkansas and the United States. As the rise of Trump makes clear, whether a woman is qualified or not, she will be judged more harshly than her male counterparts and her competence will be more severely scrutinized.
These double standards must be of huge concern for anyone concerned about women’s rights, which, after all, are human rights. Laugh at these newest Clinton memes if you like, but don’t forget what we’re really looking at: the most qualified presidential candidate in U.S. history, who publicly faced chants of “Lock Her Up” due to her questionable email practices, reading about how the vice president did exactly the same thing and still became the second most powerful man in the United States.