Why Women Learn to Wear Composure as a Suit of Armor

Growing up, my brother and I took on very different roles in our family. While I just tried to keep my head down and not rock the boat, he was the rebel. His behavior was appalling to me at the time and there was a part of him that knew that—even though it was never directly verbalized. So he would come after me in an attempt to get a reaction, and I was determined not to give him one.

We’re best of friends now, and look back on all of that with the appropriate dose of humor. But my “never let them see you sweat” approach stuck with me and has been both a source of strength and a challenge, depending on the circumstances.

I have always cast that part of myself as nothing more than a coping mechanism I depended on as a child. Until recently, I never considered the gender issues that affected not only the role I assumed, but the one my brother chose as well. But all of that is why I was moved to tears when I read this in an excerpt from “What Happened.”

After I delivered my concession speech, I hugged as many people in the ballroom as possible—lots of old friends and devoted campaign staffers, many of their faces wet with tears. I was dry-eyed and felt calm and clear. My job was to smile, be strong for everyone, and show America that life went on and our republic would endure. A life spent in the public eye has given me lots of practice at that. I wear my composure like a suit of armor, for better or worse. In some ways, it felt like I had been training for this latest feat of self-control for decades.

I was immediately reminded of something Rebecca Traister wrote during the early days of the Democratic primary. She was describing how, in our patriarchal culture, women find that they “must prove themselves extra-competent in order to be understood as basically competent — become the nose-to-the-grindstone wonks.” She goes on to write:

There’s been some talk about how a female candidate could never be as scruffy as Bernie Sanders, as uncombed and unkempt. A woman could never be as grumpy as Bernie, as left-leaning as Bernie, as uncooperative with party machinery as Bernie. And that stuff is true enough. But the bigger truth is that what Bernie does, to great acclaim, that Hillary Clinton could never do is make big promises of institutional overthrow, tug on our imaginative heartstrings by laying out a future that might not be grounded in reality, and urge a revolution.

Here is a truth about America: No one likes a woman who yells loudly about revolution.

In other words, no one likes a woman rebel. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been a whole host of admirable woman rebels. But just as the the American public would have rejected an “angry black man” as a presidential candidate, they would have rejected a female rebel. Like many of us learned at a very young age, composure became a suit of armor for Hillary Clinton—for better or for worse.

Thomas Frank, with his singular focus on populism, obviously thinks it is all for the worse.

She seems to have been almost totally unprepared for the outburst of populist anger that characterized 2016, an outburst that came under half a dozen different guises: trade, outsourcing, immigration, opiates, deindustrialization, and the recent spectacle of Wall Street criminals getting bailed out. It wasn’t the issues that mattered so much as the outrage, and Donald Trump put himself in front of it. Clinton couldn’t.

My response would be that he doesn’t recognize that—especially when it comes to presidential politics—this is still a man’s world.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.