The ‘shrill’ smear against Hillary Clinton

Story highlights

That there is sexism in politics, in business, in the world, is beyond dispute, Frida Ghitis says

When Bernie Sanders shouts, he's expressing his anger at injustice, she says

When Hillary Clinton does it, she has a character flaw, Ghitis says

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN  — 

When I heard the legendary journalist Bob Woodward’s analysis of Hillary Clinton’s performance, I was taken back to a moment in my career many years ago when a top CNN executive (who no longer works there) explained that for on-air delivery to resonate as authoritative and credible it should come in a low tone. In other words, only a man’s voice sounds like it tells important truths.

Woodward, in case you haven’t heard, brought his decades of expertise to the MSNBC show “Morning Joe” to shed light on the difficulties faced by the once-undisputed Democratic front-runner. He opined “a lot of it, with Hillary Clinton has to do with style and delivery, oddly enough.” Then he explained, “She shouts. There is something unrelaxed about the way she is communicating and I think it just jumps.”

Frida Ghitis

The political savants around the table lined up behind the argument, because that is what people do. Host Joe Scarborough interjected, “Has nobody told her that the microphone works?” And, despite valiant efforts by Cokie Roberts to note people raise their voices in political rallies, Woodward persisted. “I’m sorry to dwell on the tone issue,” he said thoughtfully, “but there is something here where Hillary Clinton suggests that she’s almost not comfortable with herself.”

Let’s give them credit at least for not calling her “shrill.” That’s because the word shrill has become a cliché for sexist commentary. In the political comedy “Veep,” when someone uses the word shrill, women knowingly roll their eyes. It turns out that women’s tone of voice, something they have limited control over, is routinely brandished against them in politics and business, a charge that is a few steps away from criticizing their choice of chromosomes.

The transparent sexism, along with Clinton’s poor performance with women, led former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to declare this weekend at a Clinton campaign rally that “there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Women, in fact, are free to choose among the candidates. But like all voters, they should ensure that insidious sexism, theirs or the pundits’, does not waft in to cloud their judgment.

That there is sexism in politics, in business, in the world, is beyond dispute. But in this particular case there is an overarching risk, a cautionary message for voters. Sure, sexist attitudes are a problem for women. But here they are a problem for all Americans deciding who should become president. Instead of discussing what truly matters, the experts are talking about Clinton’s tone of voice. And that is just one of the distractions along this well-trod path.

Perhaps it’s unfair to pick on Woodward. After all, sexist criticism of Clinton is easier to find than insults in a Donald Trump speech. And, by the way, it doesn’t just come from men. We are all subject to prejudices, conscious and unconscious. The best protection is learning to identify them, in ourselves and others.

There’s the voice, of course, which a (female) writer in The Philadelphia Inquirer finds lacks “elegance and grace,” and Peggy Noonan says “reminds me of the landlady yelling.” Then there is that charge faced by professional women that they are too aggressive and ambitious.

During Thursday’s debate, The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza called her “Hyper aggressive.” Another debate review, in The New York Times, contrasted her and her opponent, saying Bernie Sanders “kept his cool in the debate,” while Clinton appeared “tense and even angry at times.” The truth is they were both heated and intense, which was fitting. The Times’ comparison was absurd.

Men may not recognize the problem. Women surely do. A survey of women professionals in the San Francisco area found 84% had been told they were too aggressive, and 53% had been told they were “too quiet.” Many women had been accused of both.

The same arguments used to criticize Clinton (and millions of women who are trying to advance) are seen as attributes for men. When Sanders shouts, it is because he is angry at the injustice in America, because he cares so much. In her case, it is a character flaw.

Women face maddening competing expectations. They must be empathetic, nurturing, “likable.” But if they are, they risk being accused of lacking leadership qualities and strength. If they’re strong, they are accused of being cold and calculating. Imagine under these circumstances a woman trying to become president without calculating.

A couple of months ago, an intelligent, modern European woman told me she didn’t like Clinton because she is “too ambitious.” She thought becoming secretary of state enough of an accomplishment. Wanting more was unseemly.

When Sanders appears somewhat disheveled, his hair flying out of place, it is a sign of his authenticity. If a woman looked less than perfectly groomed, she would be laughed off the campaign trail.

Women candidates, and in business, face the daunting challenge of being strong without losing their ability to be liked. Somehow, lack of “likability” is a deal-breaker for women. Just imagine a woman leaving a trail of burned bridges, like Ted Cruz. In his case, it’s a sign of his commitment to principles. A woman could never get away with that. Or imagine her insulting her way through a presidential campaign, a la Trump. But a woman can’t quite tell it like it is, because then she is too harsh. (Or, God forbid, shrill.)

This is a challenge for Clinton, who is visibly trying to pull off the impossible juggling act of reconciling conflicting demands. Inevitably, she comes across as calculating.

The more important challenge is for voters to keep sexism from tainting their judgment. When you notice the absurd, the irrelevant commentary based on sexist standards, change the channel, ignore, unfollow, call it out. The job of voters is to look beyond, to the policy ideas, to the temperament, to the intelligence, to the qualifications. Tone of voice does not rank among the first 10 million traits that matter in choosing a president.

And, by the way, it doesn’t make a journalist any more knowledgeable or trustworthy.

Join us on
Read CNNOpinion’s Flipboard magazine.