THE BLOG
05/27/2016 05:15 pm ET Updated May 28, 2017

The Puzzling Vilification of Hillary, A Psychoanalyst's Perspective

How can we explain the virulent hatred toward Hillary Clinton from men and women of both political parties? The attacks against her: Benghazi, personal emails, lying, etc., are relatively minor, the usual political scuttlebutt, in contrast to the extreme intensity of her vilification. So many people say they just don't like her, and this negative impression is not new. Since her role as First Lady in Bill Clinton's White House, she has been portrayed as a witch, a Lady Macbeth, a ruthlessly ambitious, egocentric woman who considers herself above the law to achieve her exploitative goals. Some see her as a shrieking harpy. As a psychoanalyst, I believe that the intensity of this character assassination is motivated by a largely unconscious misogyny that is deeply rooted in the human (male and female) psyche. It is often triggered in response to a strong, independent woman. But this enmity is especially intense for Hillary, who is emotionally reserved and aggressive in her pursuit of the presidency. (See SNL's recent hilarious caricatures of these qualities.)

None of her caring activities have dispelled the impression that she is cold and inhuman. Not her steadfast work on behalf of children. Not her unwavering support of women: their reproductive rights and equal pay, and her advocacy for disadvantaged minorities: blacks and Hispanics. Not her exemplary role as a wife, who remained faithful to her philandering husband, nor her role as a loving mother to her daughter, Chelsea.

Male presidential contenders like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can act strongly, ambitiously, strategically and aggressively, and the public admires them for these traits rather than demanding "emotional warmth." As a cool tempered woman, Hillary is judged by a different standard. In 2008, it was only when she broke down crying at a coffee house campaign stop that she was perceived as capable of feeling.

What upsets so many Americans about a strong, competitive woman? In the corporate world, such women are often seen as castrators, trying to act like men and steal masculine power for themselves. The classic psychoanalytic explanation has been "penis envy." Theoretically, this motivates a woman to disavow her feminine passive receptivity and become cold and castrating, to compensate for her lack of phallic power.

While some women might struggle with this conflict, the theory of penis envy has been largely discredited in contemporary psychoanalytic circles as a reflection of Freud's male chauvinism and misinterpretation of female anatomy. In my opinion, a more convincing explanation involves the enormous importance of mothers to their babies. At the most vulnerable time of their lives, babies are completely dependent on their mothers for psychic and physical survival. No one will ever have more power over them. Fathers, at best, are background, supportive figures. A cold, unresponsive, rejecting mother can threaten a baby's existence and elicit extreme self-protective rage. I believe that Hillary's coolness and ambitious assertiveness has evoked this unconscious primordial dread, resulting in her highly unfavorable ratings.

But this is not the entire explanation. As young children, we depend so heavily upon maternal caretaking that both boys and girls must wean and separate themselves to become independent and self-reliant. According to psychoanalyst Ralph Greenson, we often do this by dis-identifying with her, disparaging our need for mother as weak, and by devaluing mothers as emotional, unreasonable and inferior to men. This deep-seated misogyny is manifested in the cultural discrimination against women worldwide, and the traditional belief that they should serve exclusively as nurturing, maternal caretakers and be dominated by their fathers and husbands.

Arguably, the most extreme misogyny is evident in Muslim countries in which women must hide their faces and bodies in Burkas and serve men as sexual possessions with no independent voice.
The objectification of women as sexual objects is part of this denigration. Thus, Donald Trump insists that women must be rated as 10s to have any value. Even Ed Rendell, a former democratic governor of Pennsylvania and staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton, predicted in a recent interview with the Washington Post, that Donald Trump's judgment of women's looks will backfire against him. Rendell reasoned, "There are probably more ugly women in America than attractive women. People take that stuff personally." He was oblivious to his own misogyny in this statement. In the media, Hillary is often viciously mocked for her hairdos, wearing only pant suits and looking matronly, while Bernie Sanders, with his bald pate surrounded by unkempt white hair is rarely criticized for his appearance.

The outrageous irony, in my opinion, is that such universal misogyny is the way that men, and to a lesser extent women, unconsciously protect themselves from the primordial fear of the awesome, vital power of their mothers in infancy. A reserved, ambitious woman like Hillary evokes this unconscious dreaded visage that threatens our psychic existence and engenders defensive hatred.
In a New York Times op-ed piece (May 22), Elizabeth Word Gutting said about Hillary: "...she is always the last woman standing. She has survived ceaseless attacks. It must get very tiring and yet she never flags." "Sometimes I think that many people in this country are still scared to see a powerful woman." Unfortunately, the struggle against unconscious discrimination against strong women persists, even with the possible election of the first female president. We must all have the patience and fortitude, much like Hillary, to continue fighting against this insidious bias and ultimately extinguish it.