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Hillary Clinton can't afford to be thin-skinned on sexism

Hillary Clinton says she's running for president in

Hillary Clinton says she's running for president in a video posted to YouTube on April 12, 2015. Photo Credit: YouTube

As Hillary Rodham Clinton enters the presidential fray wrapped in the aura of inevitability, it is far too early for predictions. But one thing is surely inevitable: For the duration of her campaign, we will hear a great deal about gender-based biases against her.

Already, a group that calls itself HRC Super Volunteers has warned that it will be "watching, reading, listening and protesting coded sexism." But such complaints are likely to hurt Clinton's quest for the White House -- and the advancement of women in politics in general -- far more than they help.

Few would dispute that Clinton has been the target of sexist slurs, from the likes of Rush Limbaugh on the right, but sometimes also from the left. (Back in 2005, when she was the senator from New York, MSNBC host Chris Matthews said she looked "witchy" when she attacked President George W. Bush.) Some of this nastiness is undoubtedly due to unease about women in power, and some, to the fact that in a polarized, brutal political culture, almost any weapon will do in a fight. When "the enemy" is a woman, whether it's Clinton or Sarah Palin, there are those who will reach for misogynist insults.

But not every insult directed at a woman is misogynist. And the examples of subtle sexism offered by those watchful Clinton volunteers don't even rise to the level of particular nastiness. Here's the group's list of suspect words and phrases sent out to the media: polarizing, calculating, disingenuous, insincere, ambitious, inevitable, entitled, overconfident, secretive, will do anything to win, represents the past, and out of touch.

Coded sexism? Really? I suppose you could argue that "entitled," "overconfident" and "ambitious" have sexist overtones because these traits have been traditionally seen as unfeminine. But surely, "calculating," "insincere" and "will do anything to win" are stereotypes of politicians, not of women. Being out of touch and representing the past seem perfectly gender neutral. "Secretive" is an epithet applied to plenty of men in politics.

Even before the campaign, there have been silly blowups over alleged anti-Clinton sexism. Last year, The New York Times Magazine was slammed for a "Planet Hillary" cover that showed Clinton's face in a flesh-colored sphere, an image that looked odd and unattractive. Indignant critics claimed that no male candidate would be depicted in such an unflattering way. Yet the editor who had approved that cover -- a woman, Lauren Kern -- pointed to less-than-flattering cover images of men such as Mitt Romney. To Kern, the "planet" image suggested an icon of power.

In the 2013 book "He Runs, She Runs: Why Gender Stereotypes Do Not Harm Women Candidates," Dartmouth political science professor Deborah Jordan Brooks analyzes survey results which suggest that today, being female is an asset for a political candidate in America: Voters tend to perceive women in more positive terms than men.

Even the notion that female pols are subjected to sexist scrutiny for their looks and dress turns out to be shaky. A recent study by political scientists Danny Hayes of George Washington University and Jennifer Lawless of American University showed that male politicians are no less likely to have their appearance mentioned in newspaper articles -- and that voters don't judge women in politics more harshly over personal appearance.

Hypervigilance against the smallest possible gender bias can only make a candidate and her campaign look thin-skinned -- and invite charges of playing the gender card to deflect criticism. Even letting the occasional sexist insult slide is better than crying sexism.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.

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