When a fly landed on Hillary Clinton’s eyebrow during the second presidential debate, some took it as further evidence that she is, in fact, a robot. “She didn’t even flinch!” skeptics observed, fascinated, while tweeting screengrabs of the resting insect. They joyfully continued the she’s-not-even-human joke, a characterization born from her notoriously stoic and unlikable persona.
I, on the other hand, saw a woman who has perfected the art of looking unfazed at work, even when a small, bothersome pest converges on her. After all, the fly wasn’t the only small, bothersome pest who encroached on her personal space and failed to faze her at the debate that night.
With Election Day less than three weeks away, those who plan to vote for Hillary largely fall into two camps. Some voters, like me, genuinely want her to be president. Others find her deeply unlikable and will give her their vote with the same enthusiasm they furnish for a shot of antibiotics. They’re unhappy about it but believe it’s the only way to prevent a dangerous germ from destroying them.
As is often the case, my husband Al and I inhabit opposite camps. But on this issue, I can’t stop fighting to move him into mine.
To be sure, Al and I have a strong marriage filled with love, respect, and healthy disagreements. We rarely push our views on each other, a pointless exercise between two type-A lawyers with strong opinions about everything. Our differences usually make our marriage interesting, but not this one. This one has ruined romantic dinners, driven me to the couch with my pillow tucked under my arm, and caused me to declare –jokingly, of course! – that I will divorce him if he doesn’t vote for her. Despite Hillary’s famously low approval rating, my own husband’s disapproval of her feels personal. Because I too struggle to be a woman, a professional, and a human – the elusive female hat trick.
Like Hillary, I am not always the warm-and-fuzziest of women. In 2003, exactly 30 years after Hillary, I graduated from law school unaware of all the added hurdles that still exist for women. Over time, as I learned to navigate them, I became a better lawyer and less human person for it.
I learned, for example, that if your skirt is one millimeter shorter than the unwritten industry standard, women might talk about you. If you wear a conservative, loose-fitting pantsuit, men might ridicule you. I discovered that no matter how good you are at your job, there will often be a man who thinks you are his secretary. And no matter how good you are at your job, there will often be a secretary not willing to work for a woman.
I discovered that without an engagement ring, you could appear as an unstable flight risk. The day you show up with that ring, you could be labeled an uncommitted mommy-tracker with one ovary out the door. I found that many women delay motherhood until it might be too late so they can try to get ahead while they’re still contenders for promotions.
I discovered that if you are too nice, you are a pushover. If you are too demanding, you are a bitch. I learned that striking a balance is not always easy or possible, and I learned not to worry too much about that because the robotic bitch always gets the promotion. I’ve been promoted twice.
I found that some men did not stop doing disgusting, shocking things at work just because the 21st century arrived, and that you address those indiscretions at your own risk. I learned not to assume that a woman will take your side, because as it turns out, women are often the hardest on other women.
Basically, I learned that success is easy, as long as you don’t look too good or too bad, your makeup is neither too sparse nor too heavy, the pitch of your voice is neither too high nor too low, you’re neither too nice nor too mean, too well liked nor too hated, too emotional nor too robotic, as long as you appear to have no interests or commitments or life besides work, as long as you have a husband but no children, and as long as you have no complaints – about anything.
Is it any wonder that the only woman to make it this far toward the presidency is considered perhaps the most unlikable, least human of us all? We have, after all, watched Hillary at work for the last 30 years and interviewed her for the job of president for the better part of 10. It should come as no surprise that we don’t often see her softer side.
And yet, her likability continues to be an issue, and not just with Donald Trump – who called her “such a nasty woman” during the final presidential debate – or his supporters, or establishment Republicans. She is famously disliked across party lines. A New York Times columnist once described her as looking “less like a human being and more like an avatar from some corporate brand.” A New York magazine writer confessed she had, in the past, “often compared [Hillary] to Darth Vader – more machine than woman” – and referenced the difficulty she “has long had in coming across as, simply, a human being.” And Kate McKinnon, Hillary’s Saturday Night Live doppelgänger, garnered laughs when she mockingly described her fake-self as “lovable,” declared she was “made of steel,”and referred to her own “human” father. It’s funny because it rings so true.
I wish more people would see what I see: a woman behaving exactly how we are taught to behave at work. And although humans make mistakes, since Hillary doesn’t qualify as one, hers are not forgiven.
Here’s the other thing about professional women trained to suppress their humanity: Eventually, when you work enough hours in the day, days in the year, years in your life, you can start to strip yourself of human traits even after you leave the office. You forget there’s another way, accustomed to letting so little of yourself be seen. Soon your work face becomes your permanent face, and before you know it, your husband points out that even your Bitmoji avatar never cracks a smile.
“I just want people to like you,” Al said recently, after asking to prescreen an email I drafted about an unruly neighbor. He wanted to see which version of me shined through: his nice wife or “Miss Business”? A former law firm colleague gave me that name while pointing out my lack of human traits at work. I took it as a compliment of the highest order, flooded with relief that I was pulling the whole thing off.
Fortunately, I married my opposite. Al’s lightness and silliness come as naturally to him as my resting bitch face comes to me. He reminds me to snap out of it and helps me find balance. After five minutes together, he jolts me back into my alternate reality, my other life outside the office. I am warm and light and silly again. A likable woman. A human woman.
For all we know, Hillary and Bill might roast marshmallows over their gas stove, have spontaneous at-home dance parties, and cry while watching Zootopia together, like Al and I do. But we’ll never know that, and we don’t need to. Because when we see her,she’s at work. And we’re not interviewing her for the job of best friend, wife, or Girl Scout troop leader.
That is why I defend her to my husband. I still have a kind and funny and likable person buried beneath the surface, and I hate being judged for the woman I have to be at the office. I accept the endorsements of people who know Hillary and say she is warm and lovely when the cameras are off. And even if she’s not, let’s give her a break. Most of us will never know what she endured trying to succeed as a 1973 female law school graduate. We should assume the hoops were plentiful and the hurdles were high, perhaps explaining why she always wears pants.
Notably, after a series of recent missteps by her opponent, Hillary has seemed different, lighter, pumped up – and not just from her pneumonia medicine. “She’s so cocky lately!” Al said while we watched recent rally clips on TV. “I kind of like it!” Despite her unrivaled résumé, it was the first quasi-compliment he ever paid her.
Maybe, at this critical time in the last weeks of the election, she’s finally ready to give us a glimpse of the human side we’ve been waiting for. Maybe she will convince Al, and others like him, that she’s more than a robot reciting policy statements in a pantsuit.
But even if she chooses not to, or simply can’t because it’s all been stripped away, maybe it won’t matter. Maybe she will succeed – like she always has – in the face of not being conventionally likable. Because let’s not forget, the robotic bitch always gets the promotion.
*I even got to fly to Tucson for the zookeepers convention as part of my research — “I’ll trade you one male giraffe for a female emu and a crocodile.” Fun!