After a campaign lasting more than a year and taking in all 50 states, Hillary Rodham Clinton has delivered a speech that will go down in history. As the first woman to secure a major party’s nomination for president of the United States, her address to the Democratic National Convention was a milestone for women’s leadership in the US and beyond. As she put it: “When any barrier falls in America, for anyone, it clears the way for everyone. When there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”
Clinton came to the stage under monumental pressure, charged with delivering a historic piece of rhetoric. This was a moment in world history – and it was always destined to be mercilessly dissected.
But as ever, Clinton’s popularity (or lack thereof) and the reception of her speech have been coloured by criticism of her speaking style. As the conservative website the Daily Wire headlined its reaction piece: “Hillary Accepts Nomination, Immediately Bores Americans Into A Coma Before Startling Them Awake With Her Cackle.”
Ever since she entered the national arena in 1992, media commentators have ripped Clinton’s vocal delivery apart. It has been described as loud, shrill, grating and harassing. No aspect of her oratory is beyond derision – her laugh is branded “the Clinton cackle”, and her speech derided as shouting, screaming and shrieking – inartfully substituting volume for expression.
Many may claim that Clinton isn’t one of history’s greatest orators, but there’s something more insidious going on here.
The criticism that greets her is a classic example of what is called “gender congruence bias”. This theory explains that people expect women to act in certain ways – and that if a woman’s behaviour isn’t congruent with expectations of femininity, people won’t like or accept her. The double bind that female politicians face is augmented by the deep sense that leadership is a male domain and politics in general is a domain of power – power that we are not culturally comfortable to have women wield.