Can we just focus on the issues? A theory about Hillary Clinton’s focus on work

I was listening to NPR this morning and got to thinking about how people talk about Hillary Clinton and what is spun variously as her need for privacy or penchant for secrecy. And it occurred to me that, this, like so much of the narrative about Clinton, is intimately tied to her gender and the expectations of women in professional life. In particular, in my experience, the expectations of women in law practice.

I’m roughly 25 years younger than Clinton, but I too went to an Ivy League law school and out into a world of law firms still dominated by old white men. And I learned hard lessons, as did virtually all of my fellow woman-lawyers, that we were not one of the boys. Sure, we were expected to drink with them and hold our liquor. And we were expected to listen to their off color jokes and laugh and to not get flustered at their guard-down tales of their exploits – best case scenario, from college, not the previous month.

But we were never, ever, supposed to have our own off color jokes or to laugh too loudly at them. And we absolutely were never supposed to have our own past and our own hilarious tales of college exploits. And it should go without saying that we were never to call them out on their sexism or tacit racism. We were never, ever, to remind them that there are actual women around the table, whether it be to be humorless prudes or to be as sexually “adventurous” as they were.

From my very first weeks living in a law school dormitory, I started to realize that I was in an entirely new world where I was not safe being myself. The double standard was palpable – the guys could be as weird and eccentric as they wanted and it was fun and original. Meanwhile, I felt constant pressure to conform to some idea of what a female law student was supposed to be – in the mid-90s, might I add. I learned the hard way that a half drunken chat session in the dorm lounge could lead to secrets shared in the school paper. These people were not my friends. They were my future colleagues. That was a rough awakening.

Of course Hillary Clinton doesn’t share much – she’s spent decades in a world that trained her to be a cipher. Women are supposed to reflect, not shine in their own right. We are the moon, not the sun. We are to be quiet and work hard and pretend not to notice when our bosses may quietly undermine us in favor of our male colleagues. We work when we are sick because we do not have the time or the privilege to be sick. Our sick leave is reserved for our family or the days when we literally cannot get out of bed. I have negotiated deals and settlements and written multi-million dollar contracts with a level 7 migraine. I have sat in my office and conducted business solely via written word with no voice and a fever of 100+. I have chuckled at jokes that made me want to vomit because I need my paycheck to pay the mortgage and my law school debt more than I need my pride. I’ve been perceived as cold and unfriendly because I know that perception is better than the fallout actually reacting and playing along. Because that. Is. What. We. Do.

Now, have other women had different experiences or better been able to navigate this culture? I’m am sure. I don’t pretend to speak for all women professionals or even all women lawyers. But it does not surprise me at all that Clinton’s immediate response to questions about her demeanor or her health or anything that doesn’t have to do with the actual work of the job in front of her is to hedge and to frame her answers in a way that sounds different from the male politicians we are used to seeing up there on those podiums. Because she is different, and that is her strength, not her weakness.

Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

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