Author: Johanna Schuster-Craig

Hillary Clinton and Feminine Weakness

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.

Angela Merkel on Anne Will

On October 7th, 2015, 34 CDU politicians issued a public letter criticizing Angela Merkel for her refugee politics. This letter lists suggestions for handling the refugee crisis as well as articulates frustration with the Chancellor as a representative of their party who no longer seems to adhere to the political mission of the CDU nor to European laws such as the Dublin Regulation. The CDU is primarily made up of male politicians, but it is telling that not a single woman signed this letter. The authors are frustrated with a woman who has – as we would say in the Southern US – “gotten too big for her britches”, and this letter is a way to punish her publically for breaking rank. Let’s not ignore the fact that the mostly-male CDU is not restricted to voicing their frustration in writing: many are wondering if Merkel will lose her chancellorship because of this dissent.

On the same day, Chancellor Merkel appeared as a guest on the political talk show Anne Will. Sitting on beige, Bauhaus-style leather chairs in front of a live studio audience, Merkel spoke with Frau Will about the criticism from her own party and Merkel’s “plan” for dealing with the refugee crisis. Repeating over and over again, “We can do it,” Merkel insisted that her decision to open the borders and to continue to provide services for refugees was the right course.

Several reviews of the television broadcast, such as this one from Die Zeit, state that Merkel’s appearance was received positively by politicians. As the tagesschau reports, Sabine Rau, an ARD journalist, commented after the broadcast that this TV appearance was part of a broader offensive strategy to maintain control amid dissent within her party.

Maintaining control was clearly the Chancellor’s focus during the broadcast: often talking over Anne Will and refusing to buckle under pressure, Merkel seemed confident about both her political decisions and her position as chancellor. Precisely this confidence has irritated many over the past several months, especially after Merkel proclaimed the German borders open to Syrian refugees on September 4th of this year. With that step, the Dublin Regulation, which states that refugees are supposed to be processed in the country within Europe where they first set foot, was essentially null and void. Other countries, like Greece and Hungary, who simply sent refugees who wanted to leave towards Germany, are, however, also at fault for facilitating the transfer of refugees across European borders and the breakdown of Schengen and Dublin – that does not fall solely to the Chancellor.

What I find fascinating about these two media events: one, the frustrated letter from CDU politicians, and two, the broadcast interview on Anne Will, is the general lack of ideological difference between their positions. Merkel, for instance, emphasized in conversation many of the suggestions made by the CDU in their letter: strengthening Europe’s outer borders; providing Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Libanon with support for caring for refugees; speeding up refugee processing times. The ideological conflict seems to hinge on gendered visions of national strength.

That national identity is gendered is old news – just look at the language we use to describe our countries: patria, Mother Russia, Vaterland, motherland, etc. Beyond the simple gendering of the words we use to describe the homeland, what I see in the conflict between Merkel and the CDU are reflected in different conceptions of national strength in the face of a new global order. The CDU/CSU wants to believe that some show of physical and legal strength – a border fence or control, for instance – could solve the crisis. Fortification is a form of hard power typically exercised by male bodies with access to the public sphere.

Merkel was careful to articulate, both during this broadcast of Anne Will and during her radio interview with Deutschlandfunk on October 4, that she, too, is capable of exercising hard power. Germany has sent weapons to the Middle East, and she believes that economic development, especially for Turkey, will be necessary to stem the tide of refugees entering Europe. But Merkel rejects the basic refugee program of the CDU partially because she does not believe that fortification can be successful. With or without a policy of open German borders, people see Germany as a desirable destination. Irregular migration – across what the Chancellor acknowledges are porous inner-European borders – will persist with or without fences or border patrols. When asked by Frau Will if Germany should stop accepting refugees, the Chancellor replied: “How is that supposed to work? You can’t close the border. There is no stop to admission (Aufnahmestopp).” Whether this position is a feminist one is most likely up for debate – but the refusal to believe in a closed body politic, which in turn is a refusal to feed the specifically masculine xenophobia so common across much of the right-wing, from Viktor Orbán to Markus Söder (CSU) to PEGIDA demonstrators, puts Merkel in a different position.

The last question of the Will broadcast reflects this gendered and ideological difference: Frau Will asked the Chancellor if the Germany we know today will persist in the face of such massive, sudden immigration. The right-wing, of course, is convinced that it can’t – and the right-wing is primarily male. Fears of refugees, parallel societies, changing religious values and foreign rapists or criminals portray Germany as a nation not fit to face the challenges created by sustained global conflict. The attempt to fortify national boundaries and close the borders; to limit the number of refugees entering Europe and accelerate deportations – all of these purported shows of strength ultimately mask a limited view of a weak nation. Chancellor Merkel, however, was insistent: her “German” values: free speech, the social market economy, and freedom of religion, will not change, no matter how many refugees come. Her definition of national values are based on behaviors rather than background; on social interactions rather than social origins.

Whether Merkel‘s formulation of national identity is gendered is less clear to me: is inclusion in and of itself a “feminist” or even “feminine” value? Should this image of Merkel remind us of a national mother, bringing together her unruly sons (as we might interpret based on the somewhat positive reaction of the press to her TV appearance)? That might go too far – as would the reductive declaration that Merkel, through her stance on the refugee crisis, has become a feminist chancellor. After all, this is the political leader who declared that “multiculturalism has failed” and “we can’t accept all the refugees.” Whether or not Merkel has fallen into a trap by insisting that Germany can solve the refugee crisis, as Frau Will asked during the program, she has succeeded in reframing German national identity as capable, open, flexible and responsive. And that – for many – offers a new gendering of the traditional notions of Vaterland.