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Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and the evolving politics of sexism

At last, Hillary's feminism looks like it will be a political plus in the US presidential race.

For most of her career, Hillary Clinton suffered for being a feminist. Retaining her last name helped cost her husband the governorship of Arkansas in 1980 (after that, she became a Clinton). She was mocked in 1992 for saying she wouldn't be "some little woman standing by my man", and for asserting, "I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfil my profession".

(Outrage at her "bitchiness" – a standard put-down of a strong woman – was such that Clinton tried to mollify critics by participating in a bake-off sponsored by Family Circle magazine. That must have stung. But hold on: Clinton's recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies then triumphed over Barbara Bush's cookie recipe, upholding the honour of career mums everywhere.)

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Even when Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008, there were put-downs, like the two men from a radio show heckling her, "Iron my shirt!"

So it's a measure of how much America has changed that these days Clinton is running as a feminist, after decades of skirting the issue. In 2008 she barely mentioned her gender; now it's a refrain. "This really comes down to whether I can encourage and mobilise women to vote for the first woman president," Time quoted her as saying. She even said she'd be open to choosing a woman as her running mate.

Hillary Clinton: "Her chromosomes are, at least for Democrats, her biggest selling point."
Hillary Clinton: "Her chromosomes are, at least for Democrats, her biggest selling point." Photo: AP

When a Gallup survey first asked Americans if they were willing to vote for a woman for president, in 1937, only one-third said they were. By last year, 92 per cent were willing to do so.

Another Gallup survey found that what people liked most about a Clinton candidacy was her gender. Her chromosomes are, at least for Democrats, her biggest selling point.

Conversely, maybe it's also a sign of progress that young women aren't particularly inclined to support Clinton: They're less likely to see their space defined by glass ceilings.

Already women are reshaping the public debate in healthy ways. To me, one sign came when President Barack Obama suggested recently that there should not be a tax on tampons.

Donald Trump: "Very 1970s."
Donald Trump: "Very 1970s." Photo: AP

Some 40 American states tax tampons and other menstrual products as if they were not necessities. In the past couple of years, women have led a campaign to change that, and a (female, of course) interviewer asked Obama about this.

"I confess I was not aware of it until you brought it to my attention," Obama acknowledged. "I have to tell you, I have no idea why states would tax these as luxury items. I suspect it's because men were making the laws when those taxes were passed."

When a woman is grilling the president of the United States about his policy on tampons, that's a sign that women are increasingly a part of the conversation. I hope that women will push for a more robust discussion of domestic violence, human trafficking, reproductive health care, equal pay and women's rights worldwide, issues that never received the attention they deserved when we men monopolised the stage.

Female leaders are often less focused on women's rights than one might think, but that's not true of Clinton. When she was travelling as secretary of state, she highlighted these issues by visiting sex-trafficking survivors in India and meeting an activist against child marriage in Yemen. Clinton argued tirelessly that empowering women undermined extremist groups.

Already women are reshaping the public debate in healthy ways.

We may also be seeing a backlash against the backlash against strong women. When Donald Trump seemed to suggest that Megyn Kelly of Fox News asked tough questions because she was menstruating, or that Carly Fiorina was unsuitable for president because of her looks ("Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?"), the public laughed at him more than with him.

Trump's disgust for female bodily functions – he has also referred to women urinating or pumping their milk as "disgusting" – also seems very 1970s, and these days what's yucky is no longer bodily functions but rather Trump's discomfort with them.

When Republican "mad men" make sexist comments – Trump using a vulgarism about Clinton's 2008 loss to Obama or Ted Cruz saying Clinton needed a spanking – the Clinton campaign barely conceals its delight as it sounds the trumpets.

"We are not responding to Trump," an aide, Jennifer Palmieri, tweeted triumphantly, "but everyone who understands the humiliation this degrading language inflicts on all women should."

One way in which attitudes have changed has to do with sexual predation. Shaming women who make accusations – in short, the Bill Clinton campaign approach of 1992 – is much less tolerated today.

So today Hillary Clinton is scolded for turning on and helping to stigmatise the women who accused her husband of misconduct, which oddly means that she may pay more of a price for his misbehaviour than he ever did.

That irony would encapsulate the truism that whatever the progress, women are often still held to a higher standard than men.

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist with The New York Times. 

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