Hillary and the Invisibility of Older Women

March 30, 2016

If Hillary Clinton wins the 2016 presidential race, I fully expect to see a headline declaring: Grandmother elected President of the United States.

Gender analyses of Hillary Clinton as she seeks to become president have correctly identified the double bind and double standard she faces. Rebecca Traister pointed out that some of the hostility to Hillary is a response to the transgressive act of a woman openly seeking power.

But what hasn’t been discussed is something I’ve only recently become aware of: Hillary’s age. As a woman over 60, Hillary is just supposed to go away and be content with her grandchildren and perhaps, since she still has her health, some meaningful volunteer work. Maybe make those cookies she never got around to baking earlier. She’s not supposed to still have goals and dreams, abilities and wisdom. She’s not supposed to have energy. She’s not supposed to aspire to agency or power.

You can hear this in the way her support is dismissed because it relies on women over 60, while the support of young voters for Sanders is invoked as proof that he’s the more legitimate candidate.

You can hear this in the way pro-Hillary comments by Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright were discharged by young women—Go away old, white feminists; the world has moved on, and you are irrelevant. It’s not that Gloria’s and Madeline’s comments didn’t warrant critical response, but whatever they said was likely to be dismissed as the rants of women who are on the shelf beyond their expiration dates.

What I heard in the defense of Steinem and Albright were the kinds of things we hear people say about the elderly:

You don’t understand what they’ve been through.

She’s a little prickly, sure, but she’s earned it.

Just listen politely; she’s old. You don’t have to stay long.

If there is one thing I’ve learned since tipping over the line into my sixties, it is that women this age are not even seen. So when they get all in your face, like Hillary and Gloria and Madeline, wanting to still contribute, and contribute on their terms, people get uncomfortable. Even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is given appropriate honor for being a “badass,” is still considered a little bit “cute” because she’s a badass at her age. Kind of like Betty White is a cute old lady. But Hillary is not cute, has never been (or aspired to be) “cute.”

When Hillary ran in 2008, she’d barely turned 60. She wasn’t quite old enough to be invisible. Indeed, many of the harshest attacks on her centered on her body, especially her sexuality–her lack of traditional feminine appeal, her sexual identity. She might have been considered a feminist bitch, but she was a bitch with a sex life. But in a year when the Republican men running for the nomination compare the size of their body parts and Donald Trump points out the menstrual cycle of a Fox News celebrity, Hillary is remarkably bodiless. Sanders’ and Trump’s hair get more comments than hers; Rubio’s shoes make more news. While on the one hand, I’m happy that Hillary’s supposed frumpiness is less of an issue, it’s not because we’ve become more enlightened about the sexism embedded in those kinds of comments; it’s more that at 68, what she wears and how she grooms herself just isn’t noticed; it’s part of her invisibility. She and Bill are assumed to have a marriage of convenience, where he gets all the sex he wants and she sleeps in a separate bedroom and claims it’s because they both snore. While this was once a scandal, she’s now of an age where some people assume she is sexually dried up.

People don’t want to face the reality that older women have something to offer—in politics, in the workplace, in the bedroom. The unspoken message is: Please Hillary, just go away. Don’t shatter the stereotype of older women as dotty. Don’t remind us that some older women haven’t met all their goals earlier in life because they were supporting their spouse’s career. Don’t remind us that older women should be taken seriously.

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