Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell And America’s Double Standard

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A great deal has already been said and written about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email address during her time as Secretary of State, and I’m sure there will be more such conversation over the 19 months leading up to the 2016 election. But little has been made of what I consider one of the more significant stories in response to this controversy/scandal/tempest in a teapot: Colin Powell’s statement that he also used a private email address during his time as Secretary of State, and that many of the messages he sent in that role have thus likely been lost.

There are, of course, reasons for the lack of widespread outrage about Powell’s revelations and actions; for one thing, he’s probably not running for president. But seen through the lens of history, the outrage over Hillary’s emails falls in line with one of America’s most longstanding social traditions: the overt application of double standards to men and women in both public and private life.

The second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s worked consistently to highlight and push back on such double standards. Whether responding to wage gaps and other social inequalities with the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, supporting domestic abuse and spousal rape laws to combat marital imbalances, arguing for birth control and other means for women to achieve comparable sexual freedom to men, or critiquing popular culture’s more limiting and damaging depictions of women than those of men, these activists made double standards a focus of their ideas and efforts. But the American tradition of gendered double standards goes back much further than the mid-20th century, and better engaging with those histories helps us understand the depth and breadth of the issue.

Take communal responses to moments of cross-dressing, for example. In 1837, Harvard undergraduate James Russell Lowell famously dressed in women’s clothing to perform the role of Abby Roe in the Hasty Pudding Club’s annual theatrical production. Lowell’s drag performance was an instant hit and became an annual part of the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, one that has continued for more than a century and a half to nothing but laughter and applause. Similarly, the moment did not in any way derail Lowell’s Harvard career, nor his professional trajectory toward a role as one of the era’s most popular and beloved poets.

In “A Law More Nice than Just,” a July 1858 newspaper column for the New York Ledger, popular journalist Fanny Fern (a pseudonym for Sara Payson Willis Parton) highlighted a far different moment for a woman in public. Emma Wilson, like Fern a resident of New York City, had been recently arrested “for wearing men’s apparel,” in violation of a law prohibiting women for wearing “breeches” and other clothing deemed male. Fern would continue to write about similar laws and arrests, including a June 1866 column on an arrest of a San Francisco woman for the same offense. The same action that drew laughter and applause for Lowell, and inaugurated one of Harvard’s most famous annual traditions, led to dire and damaging outcomes for these women.

In her private life, Fern experienced another set of gendered double standards: those related to marriage, law, and property. Widowed young and raising two small children (after the death of a third), unable to find work in the few fields open to women in the era, and barely supported by either her parents or her in-laws, Fern remarried Samuel P. Farrington in 1849. Farrington turned out to be abusive and violent, and two years later Fern moved out. Because Fern was not legally able to file for divorce, however, Farrington maintained the upper hand—moving away from the area to avoid having to support his wife, spreading malicious rumors that impacted her ability to find work or other support, and filing for divorce after two years on grounds of “desertion.” Had Fern not begun publishing her newspaper columns in this period—and even there her brother, writer and editor N.P. Willis, attempted to block the publication of her writing in his and other papers—she and her daughters might well have been unable to survive. Thanks to these kinds of marital and legal double standards, many 19th century women were left in precisely that situation.

The 2016 presidential campaign will no doubt include many more such double standards, questions or perceptions that affect men and women in distinct and contradictory ways. The more we can remember that gendered American history, the more we’ll be able to recognize and push back on those narratives in this potentially historic moment as well.

Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

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