A Bernie Sanders spokesperson recently played a desperate and sexist political card against Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t a new one, but Sanders’ representative surely knew that to call the former secretary of state and U.S. senator the “A” word would, for some voters, bring into question her fitness for the White House without actually having to utter those words.
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, suggested that Clinton’s personal political ambition to get to the White House would be destructive to the Democratic Party.
That “A” word was Ambitious.
It’s the word professional and accomplished women dread because it’s no secret that we are a society that values ambition in men, but that finds ambitious women to be scary, threatening or abrasive. It’s quite the sexist double standard in just about any word used to describe men and women.
The accusation, repeated to Hillary Clinton in a CNN interview, brought out her famous belly laugh, but Clinton surely knows when men start accusing women of being “ambitious”, it’s generally not meant to be a compliment and is more likely intended to be sexist shorthand for raising the question of whether one can ever trust an ambitious woman. But apparently Sanders’ ambitions are much different from Clinton’s and have no potential destructive forces.
In our culture, women’s ambition has long been portrayed as something evil while an ambitious man is lauded and seen as well qualified for whatever position. If a woman knows her place and isn’t “too ambitious” all is good and the male status quo goes undisrupted. But have a woman step out and dare to channel her ambition toward a position no woman has ever held? Well, one can count the seconds until the “A” word rains down on her like an early spring thunderstorm. Because who knows if you can trust a woman with the kind of ambition it takes to be elected to the White House? Few criticize the level of ambition needed in a man to announce a run for president when he’s only held national elective office for two years like Barack Obama, but a woman who has been elected twice as a U.S. Senator, served four years as secretary of state and who was the first woman ever to win a national primary contest has “destructive” ambition?
How much of a leap is it to wonder how long it will be before Hillary gets compared to Kylo Ren?
Clinton is hardly the first powerful woman accused of being overly ambitious as a way to criticize and question motives or experience (although the very definition of the word is actually pretty benign – having a desire to be successful or driven, eager and motivated). DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has faced the question about whether her personal political ambitions stand in the way of the DNC’s goals. Carly Fiorina has been called someone with “self-serving ambition.” And when the topic is politically ambitious women, no one can fail to mention Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in the movie Election (though let’s not forget, she did become student body president).
The fact that women must continually try to convince others – especially men – that female ambition isn’t a bad thing is born out by the fact that we are still talking about the idea in 2016. Clearly, no one – man or woman – can be elected president without a certain amount of drive, ego and, yes, ambition, so for those who shudder at the idea of ambitious women really saying they’ll never be ready for a woman president?
When Sanders’ team starts tossing out the idea that a woman’s ambition to be president is destructive, but Sanders’ own presidential ambition, as a man, should remain unquestioned, they know they are playing that card in the hope that they can get voters to pick up on the unspoken inference that an ambitious woman is suspect, untrustworthy and not deserving of voters’ confidence.
Interestingly, Sanders is married to a woman of ambition – she was the head of Burlington College in Vermont – so one has to wonder what amount of female ambition he considers acceptable and when a woman crosses the line into “destructive” ambition in his mind. That will be an interesting question to answer if he becomes president, when he’ll need plenty of those ambitious women on his staff.