When Hillary Clinton was confirmed as the Democratic candidate for the US presidency two months ago, it was difficult for many of her natural supporters to feel as much joy as might have been expected, as they watched one of America’s two major parties adopt a woman candidate for the first time in history. At that moment, Hillary Clinton looked like a fully paid-up member of the establishment, confronting both a Democratic challenger who wanted genuine change, and a Republican candidate - Donald Trump - who also claims outsider status and a radical programme, albeit a right-wing one. And essentially, she remains the establishment candidate in this election, a woman who has been close to power for so long that she cannot escape a share of responsibility for the way in which power now operates in the United States, or for the economic policies that, over the last generation, have seen a serious decline in the earning-power and security of ordinary middle-class American workers.
Yet if there is one aspect of this campaign - apart from the shocking bigotry behind some of Trump’s policies - that might persuade most of the world’s women to start backing Hillary with genuine enthusiasm, it is the kind of spectacle presented by Monday’s presidential debate, in which - as one female twitter observer put it - “the whole world watches, at last, while a woman listens politely to a loud man talking rubbish about the field she has worked in all her life”.
To say that Hillary Clinton has encountered double standards and blatant sexism during her political career is to understate the case; even before Monday’s debate started, some tweeters were out complaining about her wrinkles and her “horrible” voice, as if the great, bloated figure of Trump - and his unfailingly petulant tone - were things of beauty by comparison. So far as some commentators are concerned, it’s fairly clear that however a woman presents herself in public, she cannot get it right; I can still remember the force with which I chucked across the room a respected account of the 1990s campaign for a Scottish Parliament in which the rather measured pro-devolution columns I wrote at the time were dismissed as “strident”, a term mysteriously not applied to the much more vehement views of many male columnists of the time.
If every woman who ventures into public or professional life recognises this kind of response, though - “calm down, dear,” as David Cameron once so memorably put it - then Hillary Clinton has had to tolerate it on a scale most of us can barely imagine. Wrong when she shows strength and wrong when she seems weak, wrong when she smiles and wrong when she looks serious, wrong when she seems knowledgeable (“too clever”) and wrong when there is anything she doesn’t know, Hillary Clinton is clearly being judged by a completely different set of criteria from her opponent. Male commentators shamelessly characterise her as a “scolding mother” or “everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court”, as if “everyone” in America is an emotionally immature male. One authoritative Harvard survey demonstrated in detail how senior female politicians tend to lose popularity every time they run for office, and regain it in office; the clear implication is that “power-seeking men are seen as strong and competent, while power-seeking women are greeted with suspicion by both sexes.” Even the gentle bard of Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor, has concluded that enough sexism is enough, when it comes to Hillary; and argues that she is running for President “in concrete shoes”.
And all of this absurdity pales to insignificance when it comes to the matter of Hillary’s husband’s infidelities, for which Hillary - it seems - is now to be punished in the court of public opinion; indeed after the debate on Monday night, the thrice-married philanderer Donald Trump went around congratulating himself on not mentioning this issue, while mentioning it loudly to every journalist he could reach. This is victim-blaming in excelsis, and a preposterously cruel and sexist reaction to a woman who would clearly have benefited from ditching Bill at the end of his Presidency, but chose not to do so, perhaps because she loves him. Yet the word from the polls is that many women voters hate her for not being feminist enough when it comes to Bill, while also hating her for being too feminist on many other issues; a finding so absurd that it takes the chocolate-chip cookie, even in this most absurd election.
Whether Hillary Clinton wins the presidency or not, in other words, what we have learned is that incredibly - and despite the abysmal quality of her opponent - the United States is actually showing more psychological resistance to electing a female President than it did to electing a black one, back In 2008. This is not to say, of course, that there has not been a fierce psychological backlash against the Obama presidency. Yet at this campaigning moment, Hillary Clinton faces levels of gender-based fear and dislike, from a significant proportion of voters, that may lead to the election of one of the most aggressive and incoherent candidates in US electoral history, for no better reason than that he is male, and his opponent is not.
That the fate of 300 million Americans, and perhaps of the whole planet, could hang by such a slender thread of age-old prejudice is a shocking thought. If that realisation has one positive effect, though, it may be that it finally drives an even more overwhelming majority of American women - and of men who genuinely support gender equality - into Hillary’s camp, and into the voting booth on election day. To have reservations about Hillary Clinton and her record is more than reasonable, for anyone who cares about social justice. To give a free passage into power to those who would trash her for her age, her looks, her strength, her intelligence and her loyalty to her marriage, though, is something else again; and a fate to be avoided, by all those who want a politics that faces the future, rather than being dragged back into a ugly and misogynistic past.