Running for office as a woman is never easy — and during the third and final presidential debate, sexist attacks against the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton were on full display.
It began when Republican nominee Donald Trump characterized Clinton’s reaction to the D.C. v. Heller decision — in which the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess firearms — as “angry” and “extremely upset.”
“The D.C. v. Heller decision was very strongly and she was extremely angry about it,” Trump said. “I watched. She was very, very angry when upheld. And Justice Scalia was so involved, and it was a well crafted decision, but Hillary was extremely upset, extremely angry.”
Moderator Chris Wallace then doubled down on Trump’s characterization, asking Clinton, “Were you extremely upset?”
The idea that women politicians are inherently more emotional — or less capable of controlling their emotions — than their male colleagues is a well-worn sexist trope, one that has been employed by both politicians and the media for years. It’s tied to the idea that while men can be passionate or compassionate, women are hysterical — and that their lack of emotional control is disqualifying when it comes to political office.
“Hillary was extremely upset, extremely angry.”
Clinton herself has acknowledged this double standard, saying in an interview for Lifetime that “as a woman in a high public position or seeking the presidency, as I am, you have to be aware of how people will judge you for being, quote, ‘emotional.’ And so it’s a really delicate balancing act.”
Throughout Wednesday’s debate, Trump also repeatedly interrupted Clinton, cutting in when she was speaking and interjecting with his own answers, even when the debate rules clearly allowed Clinton the floor.
This isn’t a new tactic for Trump — in the first debate, he interrupted her 51 times by some counts. During the second debate, he continued his pattern of interrupting both Clinton and the debate moderators.
Interrupting isn’t in-and-of-itself a sexist act — men interrupt men, women interrupt women, and women interrupt men. But studies have shown that women are interrupted far more frequently than men, and that women tend to interrupt far less frequently than their male counterparts. In 1975, one of the first studies on gender and language found that men were overwhelmingly more likely to interrupt during a casual conversation than women. It’s not hard to see how, in a culture that frequently devalues the work and experience of women, interruptions can become yet another tool to silence female voices.
And Trump’s silencing went a bit further than that on Wednesday night. There was also a moment, during a heated exchange about Russian president Vladimir Putin, where Trump refused to refer to Clinton by name — or any sort of identifying pronoun. He literally erased her identity.
TRUMP: We’re in very serious trouble, because we have a country with tremendous numbers of nuclear warheads — 1,800, by the way — where they expanded and we didn’t, 1,800 nuclear warheads. And she’s playing chicken. Look, Putin…
WALLACE: Wait, but…
TRUMP: … from everything I see, has no respect for this person.
CLINTON: Well, that’s because he’d rather have a puppet as president of the United States.
But perhaps the most stunning example of the night’s blatant sexism came at the end, when during one of Trump’s frequent interjections, he called Clinton “such a nasty woman.”
It was a stunning moment, not just because, as Vox’s German Lopez pointed out, direct personal insults like that are exceedingly rare on a presidential debate stage. It was stunning because it completely laid bare Trump’s deep-rooted sexism —the idea that he views women, especially those that would dare to challenge him, as inherently nasty, vindictive, and conniving.
This is not a new characterization for women. The trope of the nasty, vindictive woman can be found throughout history and literature, from Delilah cutting off Samson’s hair to the witch hunts of colonial America. The idea of a “nasty woman” — a woman that dares to challenge the patriarchal status quo — has been used to justify violence against women for centuries, and persists to this day, from so-called “honor killings” to stonings.
At one point earlier in the debate, Trump repeated an earlier claim that “nobody has more respect for women than [him].” It was a line that earned him, unintentionally, laughter from the crowd. But, as Trump himself has made clear time and again, the insidious sexism exhibited during the debate is no laughing matter.