“It’s pretty strange to put something like that out with such little information right before an election. In fact, it’s not just strange, it’s unprecedented and deeply troubling.”
These were the words of an angry Hillary Clinton, responding to a letter sent to Congress by the FBI director James Comey regarding newly found emails on a device belonging to a close Clinton aide.
Anger hadn’t been part of Clinton’s carefully constructed 2016 political campaign. Speaking alongside Donald Trump at a charity dinner in New York on October 20 – the last time the two presidential candidates would be seen together before November 8 – Clinton had quipped: “Donald Trump really is as healthy as a horse. You know, the one [Vladimir] Putin rides around on.”
Smiling radiantly, pretty in a Ralph Lauren pink gown (no pantsuit!), Clinton had been so comfortable with her audience that she convincingly cracked that joke and quite a few more.
It’s never easy being a woman candidate for political office. Throughout a long political career, Clinton was hounded about her looks: her hair, her clothes, her laugh, her smile. Even her ankles came in for criticism.
And she was persistently warned by handlers never to appear aggressive. Or bossy. Or “shrill.”
But the look Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign had most worried about? “Serious face”.
“No man would ever be at fault for having a serious look on his face,” Elizabeth Kuhnke, author of Body Language for Dummies, explained in a recent Newsweek article. “Resting bitch face doesn’t exist for men simply because it’s a face of authority.”
Sexism plagues the career of every woman aspirant for office in the US. Yet, when Madeleine Albright, and then Condoleezza Rice, became secretary of state, they consistently scored high marks for popularity.
Clinton followed suit. In polls taken in 2011, she was viewed favorably by 66 percent of voters – making her more popular than both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
Victims elicit sympathy - the precise quality Clinton is unable to arouse on her own. And victims, when they fight back at their attackers, make us respect and even like them.
But a woman appointed to a Cabinet position by a male president – Clinton, Bush, Obama – is quite a different thing than a woman who decides to run for the presidency herself.
Running for president screams not public service but … Ambition.
So what should a self-described “policy wonk” – who happens also to be ambitious, and female – do when running for the presidency?
A calculated risk
Let’s go back to last April. “Frankly, I think if Hillary Clinton were a man, she wouldn’t get 5 percent of the vote,” Trump told a crowd of supporters. “The only thing she’s got going is the woman card.”
Clinton was quick in her reply: “If fighting for women’s healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!”
Within hours, Clinton’s campaign offered “The Official Hillary for America Woman Card” for sale for $5. Women across the US responded in droves, and within three days Clinton’s campaign raised a record-setting $2.4m.
Coolly strategic, Clinton took a calculated risk.
Trump’s misogyny didn’t take long to reveal itself. During a radio interview with Howard Stern, Trump was asked if he would stay with his wife if she were crippled from a car accident. Trump asked Stern: “How do the breasts look?” “The breasts are OK,” Stern answered. “Sure!” Trump replied, “Because that’s important.”
One bad comment about women followed another in record speed. Women are “fat pigs”, “dogs”, existing solely to be judged on their grade from men: “9” means you’ve got a babe, “4” a rottweiler.
The other woman running for the presidency, Carly Fiorina, didn’t escape Trump´s body shaming either. “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?” Trump joked.
A trust fund baby accustomed to having his way, Trump had never needed to listen. He couldn’t hear the anger building up across the 50 states of the US.
But Clinton did. She heard it – and played her hand well. In the first and second debates, instead of calling her opponent Mr Trump, Clinton called him “Donald”.
Clinton suspected that he would lose his cool. And he did. And when “Donald” lost his cool, he attacked women – starting with that “nasty woman” across the dais from him.
Trump’s “problem with women” became the focal point of the Clinton campaign.
With each “Donald”, Clinton goaded her Republican rival into another outrageous blunder, until Trump’s infamous meltdown during the third debate.
Playing the victim
Women have always known the risk of entering the old boys’ club that is American politics – take Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, first woman candidate for vice president, for example.
The morning after her vice-presidential debate with George HW Bush – a debate many commenters said she won – Bush met a group of longshoremen and proclaimed: “We kicked a little ass last night!”
It’s a long and hallowed American political tradition: a male politician and his supporters sharing a few sexist laughs at a female hopeful’s expense.
But, as Trump discovered – it stopped working.
Was it that millennial women weren’t swallowing the old gender status quo? While older women – many of whom had fought hard for equal rights in the 1970s and 1980s – finally smelled a chance at grabbing power?
Trump banked on Clinton’s unlikability to win. Carelessly, he attacked her – and in attacking her, made her a victim.
Victims elicit sympathy – the precise quality Clinton is unable to arouse on her own. And victims, when they fight back at their attackers, make us respect and even like them.
But now Clinton is fighting back against the FBI director – a very different opponent than Trump. And it’s impossible to predict this wild card’s impact on voting November 8.
A New York Times op-ed from October 15 stated: “For whatever it has done and failed to do, the presidential candidacy of Donald J Trump has revived a national discussion of misogyny.”
But it wasn’t Trump who brought misogyny out from darkness into the light of national debate. The one who did that was Clinton.
With consummate skill, Clinton dug the holes for Trump to fall into. She directed him as to their location. And she made sure that the moment(s) of his fall(s) would be when the largest number of Americans were watching.
Whatever one’s opinion of Clinton – and I, for one, am not a fan – that’s one masterful performance.
Gina Benevento is a former UN diplomat based in Jerusalem, now living and working in Madrid as a strategic communications consultant.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.