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  • Presidential Pioneer or Campaign Queen?Hillary Clinton and the First-Timer/Frontrunner Double Bind
  • Karrin Vasby Anderson (bio)

On September 20, 2015, Hillary Clinton appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation to answer questions about her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. She and host John Dickerson had the following exchange:


In politics this year, it looks like everybody wants an outsider.




Now that puts you in a fix.


Oh, I don’t think—


—Does it put you in a fix? Tell us why it doesn’t put you in a fix.


I cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president. I mean really, let’s think about that.1

Dickerson reacted with bemusement. Being the frontrunner in a major-party presidential nominating contest is not typically something that puts the candidate “in a fix.” Nor should it have been laughable that a woman candidate was trying to assume the mantle of outsider in a U.S. presidential campaign—plenty of male candidates with long lists of political bona fides have pulled that off.2 Fourteen months after the interview, however, Clinton’s [End Page 525] presidential bid was quashed by self-proclaimed outsider Donald J. Trump in a supposed rebuke of the establishment order in both major U.S. political parties. Whether Trump qualifies as an “outsider” is a matter of some dispute,3 but the narrative that casts Trump as a trenchant iconoclast and Clinton as an interminable pol diverts attention from the ways in which women continue to be disadvantaged in presidential campaigns—particularly during a so-called “change election.” As the first woman to be a presumptive major party presidential nominee in two separate campaign cycles, Clinton faced a set of constraints that have not hampered other prospective presidential nominees. Her presidential bids have revealed a(nother) double bind endemic to U.S. presidentiality: the first-timer/frontrunner double bind. My examination of this rhetorical dynamic reveals not only the persistent resistance to female presidentiality; it also explains why Clinton’s political persona continues to be shaped by negative characterizations of female political power. After briefly reviewing academic research on gender double binds, I examine the ways in which Clinton has been cast as presidential pioneer or campaign queen—outgrowths of the first-timer/frontrunner double bind. This analysis demonstrates that although Barack Obama’s election challenged the hegemonic whiteness of the U.S. presidency, its hegemonic masculinity remains firmly entrenched.

Gender Double Binds

The gender double bind, centuries old,4 has many manifestations,5 but undergirding each one is “a rhetorical construct that posits two and only two alternatives” that are “constructed to deny women access to power and, where individuals manage to slip past their constraints, to undermine their exercise of whatever power they achieve.”6 The double bind that most forcefully has constrained women’s political agency is the “femininity/competence” double bind, in which “women who are considered feminine will be judged incompetent, and women who are competent, unfeminine.”7 The logic of the femininity/competence double bind undergirds the practice of decrying powerful women as “bitches,” “ballbusters,” or worse.8 Its impact on political women has been documented by scholars, as has women politicians’ courageous and creative rhetorical resistance.9 [End Page 526]

Women who owe their jobs to the electorate are not all affected by the femininity/competence double bind in exactly the same way. Those seeking representative offices like seats in state legislatures or the U.S. Congress can subordinate themselves to their constituents, thereby sidestepping the leadership norms that most directly violate norms of femininity. Those seeking executive offices like state governorships must craft a leadership style that affords them credibility while still appealing to the majority of voters.10 Individual women politicians have been quite successful at challenging the hegemony of the femininity/competence double bind. The U.S. presidency, however, is the Catch-22’s last outpost—fortified by the thorough masculinization of the office of U.S. president. When Hillary Clinton launched her first bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, she was bombarded with misogynistic attacks that were rooted in...