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How Hillary Clinton Is Trying to Avoid Being ‘Shrill’

6 minute read

Despite winning coveted seats at Hillary Clinton’s first rally in New Hampshire after winning the Iowa caucuses — more than 100 people were turned away — Joe and Lucy left while Clinton was still speaking.

The Clinton supporters, both in their 70s, didn’t want to use their last name because they are dedicated supporters. “But it was too loud,” Joe said. “She’s, well, shrill.”

“Don’t say shrill,” Lucy admonished, “that’s sexist. But there was a lot of yelling.”

Clinton was fired up, fresh from her Iowa win and keen to stop any momentum rival Bernie Sanders might get from placing second in Iowa by a whisker. But her passion comes across as, in Joe’s words, shrill. Is that fair when Sanders does nothing but yell to great aplomb on the campaign trail?

“Thanks to his maleness, Sanders’ yelling gets interpreted by his audiences and especially his supporters as the righteous anger of a tough leader, while, due to her femaleness, Clinton’s would be heard by many people as the screeching of a ‘hysterical’ or ‘nagging’ woman,” says Nicholas Subtirelu, a linguistics professor at Georgia State University.

Indeed, there is an entire set of vocabulary to describe loud women. Words like shrill, caterwauling, shrieking, yowling and screeching are all associated with women — not men.

Running for executive office is the toughest barrier for women. Not only has America never elected a female President, but only 12% of governors, 18% of mayors and less than 5% of Fortune 1000 CEOs are women. Women face a toughness test than men almost never do, which is a hard needle to thread while also remaining likeable.

“Research on campaigns tells us that the default image of political leadership is male so a female candidate has to both demonstrate competence and remain feminine and likeable. Hillary has always been able to demonstrate competence and experience,” says Michele Swers, a political-science professor at Georgetown University who has written several books about women in U.S. politics. “As a long scrutinized figure and a rare female among the top leaders she has had more difficulty achieving likeability.”

In 2008, Clinton ran to prove she was tough enough, downplaying the historic nature of her campaign. She hasn’t faced that challenge this cycle: polls show she is perceived as having the experience to be a Commander in Chief. But what she’s struggling with now is passion. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has faced the same problem. She speaks equally as powerfully on economic disparity as Sanders, but she has faced criticism that she’s shrill.

“Warren as a Harvard Law professor is also seen as someone who is competent and has a mastery of facts but is not as good on the stump and does not come across as likeable,” Swers says. “Sanders voters are angry and want a revolution so they are not as concerned about likeability.”

Indeed, running as an outsider is a boon to Sanders: he is expected and empowered to be the angry bomb thrower. It even endears him to voters and pundits — just look at actor Larry David’s portrayal of Sanders on Saturday Night Live. “Bernie’s ‘shouting’ makes him more likable among many voters, while Clinton’s ‘yelling’ cues characterizations that she is cold and aggressive, traits for which women are more likely to pay a penalty,” says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women in Politics.

When Sanders yells, it reinforces his words and message, but when Clinton yells it’s the opposite, it detracts from what she says, says Jennifer Lawless, head of American University’s Women & Politics Institute. “When Hillary Clinton yells, she’s perceived as yelling — not about any policy, not about any needed change. Her words could be identical to Sanders’, and her message could be exactly the same, but the reaction is different,” Lawless says.

Read More: Clinton’s Campaign Manager Isn’t Worried About a 2008 Repeat

Lawless says that people take exception to women’s loud voices because “we’re still not accustomed to women running for the highest political offices. So when we hear their voices as anything other than cool, calm and collected, we have a negative response. We think they’re angry, or upset, on a personal level,” Lawless said. “The good news is that political science research indicates that voters don’t punish women any more than they do men when they show emotion on the campaign trail — whether it be by yelling or crying.”

Indeed, Joe and Lucy aside, New Hampshire might be the one place where raised women’s voices don’t raise many eyebrows. The state is one of the best in the nation for electing women. In the past five years, women have held the offices of governor, lieutenant governor, the entire congressional delegation and half the state senate at one point or another.

The Clinton campaign, knowing that she can be perceived as shrill in large, loud rallies, made the conscious decision to hold more intimate town-hall meetings. Their dilemma — a problem unique to female candidates — now is how to show Clinton’s passion while keeping her likeable.

To that end on Wednesday, Clinton moderated her tone and her speech. At events in Derry and Dover she took a more relaxed tone. At the end of the speeches she grew solemn and serious.

“Among the things that I’ve heard in the past few days in the context of the race between Senator Sanders and myself is the idea that you have to vote between your heart and your head. I hope you use both. I take this responsibility to heart. I certainly do. I just have such a sense of obligation to all those people who share their stories with me in those small encounters and in those quiet moments when a mom says, ‘Please, please, help me my son just died of a heroin overdose,’” she said, her voice quavering. “I hope no doubt we can do it, but we really have to marry our hearts and our heads together. So as you think about who to vote for next Tuesday, think about the person who can do both — do all parts of the job.”

Clinton is now betting that a whisper is louder than a roar.

–Jay Newton-Small is the author of the recently published book, “Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works,” available on amazon.com or at book stores everywhere.

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