“Look at that face,” Donald Trump shouted to a Rolling Stone reporter last year, “Why would anyone vote for that?” Trump was talking about Carly Fiorina who, at the time, was still his primary rival. It was one of the many sexist insults that Trump would employ, a tactic that, by now, is a regular feature of his campaign. Since his comment on Fiorina’s face, Trump has infamously called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman,” implied that she’s physically weak and thus unfit for office, and used gendered innuendo as an attempt to discredit a handful of women journalists covering his campaign. Despite this history, Trump’s response to accusations of sexism has always been that “he’s going to be great for women”; a response that’s generally met with cheers from his base.
But Trump is hardly alone when it comes to sexist insults; a quick look at the history of women in politics reveals that sexism is a common campaign strategy. Geraldine Ferraro waded through some stereotypical sexism during her 1984 run for Vice President. In one of the more infamous moments of the campaign, Barbara Bush said that Ferraro was a word “that rhymes with rich.”
When Wendy Davis ran for governor of Texas in 2014, she was routinely called “Abortion Barbie” (opponents even made a doll of her). Similarly, the left dubbed Sarah Palin “Caribou Barbie,” leading to an entire year where I began every other sentence with the qualifier, “don’t make me defend Sarah Palin.” And even President Obama couldn’t resist a stereotype when, in 2008 during a primary debate, he told Clinton that she was “likable enough.”
But it’s likely that Clinton was as prepared for Obama’s half-hearted “likable enough” comment as she is to Trump’s regular insults. When, in 2000, she ran for the Senate against Rick Lazio, he physically confronted Clinton during a debate making a series of demands (Trump’s hovering in the early October debate was a bit reminiscent of Lazio’s heavily criticized move). And even before that, as First Lady, she was the tabula rasa for anxiety over changing gender norms. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession,” Clinton said while campaigning for her husband in 1992. It was a simple statement—a true statement—but one that she ultimately spent years apologizing for, performing penance by actually baking cookies.
In a recent campaign appearance, accompanied by Beyoncé, Clinton reclaimed that statement. It was a moment that captured that tension of this election, of a large percentage of voters who want to embrace feminism (or some iteration of it) and those who want little more than to defend a status quo, succinctly dubbed “locker room talk.”