Donald Trump is running a U.S. presidential campaign for the record books. Controversial comments about about Muslims and other minorities have become commonplace in Trump’s stump speeches, but his recent comments about Hillary Clinton mark a new emphasis on gender from the controversial candidate.
At a Dec. 20 campaign stop in Grand Rapids, Mich. he said Clinton had been “schlonged” in losing her 2008 presidential bid. He went on to comment that her extended bathroom break during a televised Democratic debate was “disgusting.” And on Tuesday, he accused her of playing the “woman card” in response to his criticisms. The headlines may be fresh, but Trump’s use of “gendered” language — referring to gender to make negative comments about someone — is a longstanding trend now being dragged into the spotlight.
“It’s certain adjectives used to describe women that are less appealing,” said Janni Aragon, associate professor of political science at the University of Victoria.
“The adjectives that are used to cover women, whether it be Hillary Clinton or Madeleine Albright, looking ‘haggard,’ ‘matronly,’ with their ‘shrill’ voices.”
Trump has claimed he’s not sexist, and his daughter Ivanka Trump, who had been notably absent from his campaign so far, emerged Tuesday to insist that her father is “highly gender-neutral,” but he has a history of such comments even before his recent attacks on Clinton. Earlier in the campaign he suggested Fox journalist Megyn Kelly had questioned him aggressively during a debate because of her menstrual cycle, renewed his decade-long feud with comedian Rosie O’Donnell and tried to defuse criticisms he’d used sexist language to attack fellow candidate Carly Fiorina by saying she had a “beautiful face.”
“His comments bring to light persistent stereotypes, and underscore how unusual it is to have female presidential candidates,” said Nancy Peckford, national spokesperson for Equal Voice Canada. “In North America, we are adapting to women being influential and powerful.”
The illusion, Aragon said, is that voters think of women as being experts in “bread-and-butter issues” like healthcare and education.
Clinton, a former Secretary of State, doesn’t fit this mould — and that’s part of what makes her a target for gender-related comments, Peckford said.
“Being a woman who is really well-positioned, these comments are made to delegitimize her and take away her credibility,” she said.
While Canada’s politics aren’t exempt from this kind of problem, Pickford said, American politics differ in key ways that make gender more apparent and easier to pick on.
“You need more money and access to more wealth. Attack ads are common, viciously going after opponents is commonplace. These things make it more complicated for women to enter the political arena in the U.S.,” she said. “There is also a more entrenched political elite, so it is harder to enter at the national level.”
Trump and Clinton have become the two frontrunners in the races for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations, so every word between them counts. The language they use towards each other becomes more and more important as voters start considering who will be the next president.
But while Trump’s efforts to make Clinton look weak may work among his own supporters, Aragon thinks it’s a boon for Clinton’s campaign team.
“Anytime someone starts attacking her, people who are supporting Hillary send out emails,” Aragon said. “It rallies people to support her.”