Like many, I’ve struggled to make sense of Trump’s victory. I have read and rationalized, cried and determinedly continued on. The day after the election, I was with group of smart young women attempting to reconcile ourselves to Hillary Clinton’s loss. How do we better understand the forces at play? How do we organize as women and intersectional feminists? These were conversations we, along with many others across the nation, had. One question in particular remained: when will we see a woman shatter that “highest and hardest” glass ceiling (as Clinton put it in her stunning concession speech)? And who will it be?
There has already been speculation: Elizabeth Warren? Michelle Obama? Do any of these women stand a chance? None of us can know. But one of the women I was with at this gathering, whose thoughtfulness I greatly admire, raised an important point: Michelle Obama has something that neither Clinton nor Warren has: clearly legible femininity.
For eight years, we have been conditioned to see Michelle Obama not just as First Lady but as a devoted wife and mother. A recent movie even depicted Michelle and Barack Obama’s love story, folding Mrs. Obama’s life neatly into the “marriage plot” narrative we expect of women, even those whose professional successes (like hers) have been exceptional. We have admired her toned physique; her arms, though “strong,” have never been viewed as un-ladylike. We have lauded her fashion choices, which have inevitably erred on the side of traditionally feminine looks: skirts and dresses. Her recent shoot in Vogue is a testament to her conventional womanly beauty. So, too, and in a much more egregious way are recent comments a West Virginia mayor made about her. Though I will not repeat them here, it is noteworthy that in addition to her race, the comments made explicit reference to her gender: “in heels.”
Compare this to our national image of Clinton (and to a lesser extent, Warren). Though Clinton has devoted her life to women and children’s causes, her image has never been a clearly maternal one. To much national outrage, she rejected the image of herself as nurturing, domestic housewife by refusing to “stay home and bake cookies.” Perhaps this is why her appeals to her status as a “grandmother” throughout the campaign never landed with the force she desired. In addition, her husband’s dalliances have cast a long shadow of doubt on her role as wife, dismantling our expectations of the “happily ever after” that should have followed the fulfillment of her own marriage plot. Not least of all her fashion choices, voice, and appearance have been the subject of unending scrutiny. Unlike Michelle Obama, who has favored dresses and skirts, Clinton’s signature is her pantsuits. She is considered “shrill” and, worse, “aggressive.” She is seen as ambitious and power hungry. She is, in sum, derided for being decidedly un-feminine.
Importantly, however, Clinton is never quite viewed as a thoroughly masculine figure. Instead, she seems to be a woman – literally and figuratively – in the trappings of a man, embodying a sort of transgressive drag. She represents an androgyny that is anathema to a large swath of the population. Her gender performance is not clearly ascribable to the categories of “man” or “woman.” Clinton occupies some nebulous, unacceptable space between. She debunks our understanding that gender is a stable entity and so stokes our most entrenched societal fear: that of the ‘Other’ we cannot fully know or place.
And this, I think, begins to shed some light on her defeat. There are numbers and figures that can perhaps offer more concrete reasons. But while we can readily blame the Electoral College, low voter turnout, or the women who refused to unite around her, the more sinister antagonists remain our nation’s systemic racism, bigotry, and misogyny. We have not, however, fully considered one such additional antagonist: trans-phobia. I do not presume to conflate Clinton’s situation with that of the transgender community; I recognize that she herself has not had to deal with the devastating terror and repercussions the LGBT+ community has long faced. Nevertheless, I believe our fear and even disgust surrounding her ambiguous gender performance speaks directly to a contemporary moment in which trans visibility and issues are becoming more prominent – and concurrently inciting more hostility – than ever before.
The 2016 election and Clinton’s candidacy come in the midst of heated debates about the “Bathroom Bill” in North Carolina, which would allow transgender men and women to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity rather than their biological sex. That Clinton should lose the swing state comes as no surprise in hindsight. It comes on the heels of Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming-out” and historic Vanity Fair cover. It comes amidst a slew of television shows celebrating transpeople, including Jenner’s own reality show I Am Cait, MTV’s I am Jazz, and of course Amazon’s Transparent. It comes in a moment when we are (rightly) debating the viability of cis-gender actors playing trans characters. But it also comes, most importantly, in a year riddled by unconscionable (though not new) violence against the transgender community.
At the risk of confusing causation for correlation, I do not wish to suggest that Clinton’s loss was the result of trans-phobia. Rather, I suggest again that Clinton’s loss coincides – and perhaps not incidentally – with a moment in which our nation is being forced to reconcile itself to the “transgender question.” We have historically considered the “race question” (60s), the “woman question” (70s), and the “homosexual question” (80s). We have yet to sufficiently answer any of them. Still, we have superficially assuaged ourselves that these questions have been definitively considered through Supreme Court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Obergefell v. Hodges. The “transgender question” – almost certainly destined to be the question of the late 10s – has not yet followed suit. It appears poised now to do so, but the road ahead is long. Neither candidate, it is worth noting, made the issue central to the campaign, though Donald Trump himself was asked last April what bathroom at Trump Tower Caitlyn Jenner should use (whichever she feels appropriate, he answered). Whatever lip service Donald Trump offers, trans-phobia endures. And Trump’s victory is a scary prospect for the transgender community and all of those deemed ‘Others’ in our country. There are so many questions that cannot yet be answered. But I am certain, if nothing else, that we must not wait idly by until they are. And let us hope that this month, Transgender Awareness Month, reminds us of the work we have in store.