No woman has experienced sexual harassment en masse like Hillary Clinton during this presidential campaign. There’s no reason to think it will stop if she wins.
It’s not just Donald Trump. Clinton haters broadcast their harassment on T-shirts, buttons, car bumpers. There are even billboards and dolls. She’s regularly called a bitch and a cunt. Told to smile more. To smile less. Her looks are constantly rated and found lacking.
Clinton’s run for the presidency has unleashed a deep unease many people, men and women, feel about powerful women. Swirl that discomfort with the brazen misogyny of her opponent and his supporters, then top it off with decades of Hillary hate fueled by various conservative politicians and conspiracy theorists and the result is, well: Trump that Bitch.
Trump that Bitch is one of the preferred slogans of the Hillary haters. They’re also partial to “Life’s a Bitch, Don’t Vote for One.” This summer one button advertised the “KFC Hillary Special, 2 Fat Thighs 2 Small Breasts … Left Wing.” Men wear these slogans proudly, sometimes surrounded by a wife and daughter.
“Trump That Bitch is definitely built around the idea that men should dominate women and that Clinton should not become president,” said Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia who studies leadership, gender, discrimination and diversity. “If she wants power she must be a bitch, because women aren’t supposed to want power.”
If you consider Clinton’s presidential campaign as her full-time job, then you have to look at the hostile work environment she’s operating in. She is daily pushing forward against the largest volume of sex-based aggression, criticism and hostility that any woman’s had to deal with on a national stage.
To understand this, it’s important to lay out the definition of workplace sexual harassment. It is not simply a male boss propositioning a female underling with her career at stake. Harassment more commonly takes other forms, including nasty comments ― rooted in your gender ― meant to demean and diminish and disempower.
“When you sexually harass someone you are literally taking away their power,” said Stefanie K. Johnson, a professor at the University of Colorado’s business school who studies gender bias.
And it works, Johnson cites research that’s shown that women who are harassed and treated like objects, actually start behaving more like objects than people. They eat less, move less, according to research. Women become less productive at work. Harassed women report higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Say what you will about her politics and policies, Clinton’s resilience in the face of sustained harassment seems even more remarkable considering all this.
Researchers have found that it is even more common for powerful women ― managers and supervisors ― to face harassment from colleagues and subordinates.
“The more power women gain, the more sexual harassment they experience,” explains Berdahl, who’s been studying harassment for more than a decade, frequently testifies on discrimination in court, and has been a pioneer in explaining this phenomenon.
In a study Berdahl recently coauthored, currently under review, she and her co-authors found that women who had higher levels of ambition were more likely to be mistreated by their subordinates. Ambitious men didn’t see the same level of mistreatment.
Harassment, in these cases, wasn’t about sex but about asserting dominance based on gender. It’s an attempt to knock a powerful woman off her high horse, essentially. And it often works: Women who are harassed don’t typically stick around the office for more.
Obviously, Clinton is not quitting.
However, the harassing rhetoric she’s attracted isn’t going to go away if she wins. And the hostile environment created by the bitch-talk trickles down to everyone. It’ll be the price the U.S. pays for moving the needle forward on gender equality.
“Racism intensified after Obama won and sexism is going to intensify after Clinton wins,” Berdahl said, in the context of the latest polling numbers. “I guess it’s the negative and positive growing together.”