I'm A Working Woman & Last Night's Debate Made Me Cringe

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As I watched Hillary Clinton take the stage for the second presidential debate, I was ready for a shouting match. I was ready to watch a man wink away sexual assault as “locker room talk.” But I wasn’t ready for how intensely I’d identify with the former senator and secretary of state as she smiled gamely beside Donald Trump.

This familiarity jarred me — after all, I’m more at ease in combat boots than I am in a power suit, and I’ve never aspired to public office. But as Trump smugly told Clinton “she should be ashamed of herself,” I felt white-hot anger slice through my stomach. Because, in my own small way — which did not, of course, involve a man nearly twice my size hovering behind me like a leather-faced stalker in a B-grade horror flick — I could relate to her, or, at least, to the strain of having to smile and nod at someone who lacks an iota of insight about the kind of work I’d done for most of my adult life. And I’m certainly not alone: What plays with an air of sideshow surrealism on the debate stage happens every day in smaller — though no less damaging — ways in offices all across America.

After the last debate, I heard pundit after pundit praise Trump for doing a bare minimum of prep. It reminded me of the time I worked in communications for a university-based program. The director of the program was singularly convinced of his own greatness — even before he had started the real, substantive work he’d been hired to do. When he told me to book him on The Colbert Report and I pointed out that the show had gone off the air more than a year ago and that Stephen Colbert was hosting The Late Show, he said — without skipping a beat — “well, book me on The Late Show.” He also told me to “be more smiley” in my performance reviews. I was expected to do the impossible and make it appear effortless — much like Trump’s claim that Clinton should have fixed a broken and inefficient government in her 30 years of public service.

Kirstin Kelley, 25, is no stranger to these types of unreasonable demands; they're why she left a planned career in counterterrorism to become a journalist. Kelley entered her master’s program hoping to parlay her degree into a high-paying position at the Department of State. Instead, as one of only eight women in a 50-person class, she struggled to find “a spot at the table that I’d already earned.” Classmates frequently spoke over her; in one lecture, a classmate openly mocked “little girls playing soldier.” And yet, in Kelley’s experience, most of her professors seemed more invested in networking with these poorly behaved men than in mentoring women. “Generally, the paternalistic attitudes I encountered in my program seem like a big part of this election,” she says. “Clinton has earned her spot, so let’s hear what she has to say instead of challenging her right to say it.”

I was expected to do the impossible and make it appear effortless — much like Trump’s claim that Clinton should have fixed a broken and inefficient government in her 30 years of public service.

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For Jessica*, 30, an aerospace engineer, the tone of this election, “honestly brings up sexism that I have tried to forget.” She recalls micro aggressions early in her career, like one man’s statement that he’d never let his daughter go into manufacturing because the shop floor is “no place for a woman.” She recalls the time a male subordinate told her to "bake me some cookies" when she gave him an assignment. But for Jessica, the frequent criticism of Clinton's confidence and intelligence — both by Trump and pundits — has caused her to question how others in her office see her. “When I hear a man criticizing Hillary for qualities I admire, I wonder if men at work are saying the same things about me behind my back. It's making me second-guess how I act professionally.”

Even working in so-called “pink collar” professions, such as teaching or health care — fields in which women tend to outnumber men — doesn’t insulate working women from the kind of sexism we’ve been seeing in these debates.

Trump’s repeated interruptions, a mainstay of both debates, are particularly triggering for Sophia*, 31, a counselor at a mental health clinic: “[His] behavior reminded me of myriad experiences…where a man devalued me, criticized me, interrupted me, spoke over me, gaslighted me, and took my ideas as his own.” Still, Sophia finds a sad validation in a “pretty brutal and upsetting” campaign: At least she knows she’s not alone.

Far from it. Jade*, 47, worked as an executive assistant before transitioning to a communications position; she laments that she has “always been subject to some level of harassment at work." Jade endured years of disparagement about everything from her clothing to the time she took off work in order to consult with a maternal-fetal specialist during her high-risk pregnancy. She feels “picked on by the working world” and can empathize with Clinton as “a strong, powerful woman who has worked hard to get where she is, who cares and has spent her life in public service, and yet is so disparaged.”

I share this rage on Clinton’s behalf — I nearly pulped my throat yelling “Oh come on!” when Clinton explained, to her rival for leader of the free world, how a veto works. I scream because she has to keep a steady voice.

In so many ways, Hillary Clinton is every woman who must smile and raise her voice an octave while presenting a list of her accomplishments to a boss who should have been aware of them if he'd been paying attention. She is every woman who has worked twice as hard, only to watch the promotion go to a man who knows half as much. She is every woman who must suppress a sigh when the blowhard in accounts management talks over her — only, in Clinton’s case, that blowhard isn’t just pointlessly pontificating about email blasts; he’s a candidate for the most powerful position in the world.

We see it. The world sees it. And no matter our politics, I hope that before the third debate rolls around we can all agree to let Hillary Clinton take her place at the table — or, in this case, the podium — and do her work without interruption.

Laura Bogart is a journalist and freelance writer. The views expressed here are her own.
*Names have been changed.
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