Hillary Clinton stumbled on Sunday, having difficulty getting into a van after a commemorative event for the 9/11 attacks. The timing was horrible for the campaign. Republican pundits and politicians have been commenting on Clinton’s health since she had a coughing fit about a week ago during another event. Such attacks on a candidate’s health as proof of their fitness for office are not rare, as Gail Collins pointed out in an op-ed in The New York Times last Friday. President Obama, for instance, questioned John McCain’s health when they ran against each other in 2008, causing McCain to release detailed medical records. Clinton’s campaign has already released fairly detailed medical records, in contrast to Donald Trump. But – as a recent article in the Washington Post argues – those fringe conspiracy theorists who used to speculate that Clinton’s health concerns make her unqualified to hold office have now moved to the center.
Clinton was diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, a condition easily treated with antibiotics. She was prescribed rest and will return to the campaign trail by the middle of this week. But Clinton’s health has become a new distraction in what was already a highly distracted election cycle. Commentators have had a field day promoting anxiety-riddled coverage about Clinton’s health and electability, which includes the Twitter hashtag #ClintonCollapse. It is alarming, although not surprising, to watch the first female candidate’s fitness for office be essentially reduced to her body; to whether or not she faints or coughs.
Debates about what constitutes sexism have been a constant companion on the 2016 presidential campaign trail. Some of these conversations, especially about Clinton being “unqualified” to be President or about her “shrill” speaking voice, are not new. The website Media Matters for America has compiled a list of these gendered insults against Clinton during the 2008 campaign, when Clinton ran against Obama during the Democratic primary. Many of these conversations revolve around qualifications – the topic reserved for “respectable” sexism. This type of sexism sees incompetence where there is none, using impossible standards as a form of gatekeeping to exclude women and minorities.
Donald Trump’s sexist comments, which are hardly “respectable,” seem like examples from an introductory gender studies textbook which illustrates sexism through hyperbole. His utterances take their power from bodily revulsion: Trump’s comments about menstrual blood seem lifted from the pages of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies. Lest we think this disgust is part of the fringe: I grew up in the 1980s in Kentucky listening to adolescent jokes about why a woman could never be president. The punchline was always that a woman would be mentally unstable because of her uncontrollable, leaking body: “She’d get menstrual cramps and start a nuclear war with North Korea.”
In the context of these debates about Clinton’s “weak” body, Alexandra Petri, a humor columnist at the Washington Post, wrote this lovingly ridiculous column called “How is Hillary Clinton Still Alive?” It begins by listing all of the diseases conspiracy theorists claim Clinton has, including lupus, Parkinson’s and HIV. Imagining Clinton beset by illness, Petri argues that she must be the eighth wonder of the word: “Every time she puts together a coherent sentence, it is a minor miracle. It requires a team of armor-clad specialists to prop her upright at all times.” Petri takes these debates to their logical, sexist conclusion: the only way Clinton can be seen as fit for office is through a literal witch hunt: “We must test her correctly. She must be placed upon a ducking stool, then weighed against a sack of Bibles, and then we must hear Giles Corey’s testimony against her. […] Does her body bear the Devil’s Teat? Does she mutter to herself? Did Abigail see her dance in the glen with the Lord Beelzebub, then fly off into the night with a loud cry?” (“Abigail” is a reference to the woman whose accusations instigated the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts in 1692.)
The purported weaknesses of the female body and the disgust with which men have historically reacted to women’s bodies are not dusty male fantasies relegated to histories of feminist theory – they are front and center on the US campaign trail. The concerns about Clinton’s health extend discourses of feminine weakness which posit that women will buckle under strain; that women’s bodies are weaker than men’s. Hillary Clinton is not a hysterical woman with a wandering uterus, although fainting in the heat offers the seduction of many a gendered Victorian trope. She is a former Senator, Secretary of State, and candidate for president who surely keeps a schedule most of us could not match, as The Huffington Post argued in this collection of tweets. (For those concerned about Clinton’s age, it’s worth noting that she is younger than Donald Trump.)
Eerily, Trump sounded remarkably generous and at ease while commenting on Clinton’s health in widely-disseminated audio clip from Fox News this week, wishing her a speedy recovery. I found this ease suspect: atypical for Trump, his statement reeked of pity.
And pity, as the saying goes, is reserved for the weak.
NOTE: The views expressed here are those of the author alone, and do not represent or reflect the views of any institution.