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So, in case you were cut off somewhere on Alpha Centauri yesterday and missed this critical election news, Secretary Hillary Clinton felt a little overheated while attending a September 11 memorial event and needed to take a time out. All the usual suspects promptly went bananas: Finally, the definitive evidence we need to prove that Secretary Clinton is unfit to be president.
As it turns out, she was right as rain after chilling at Chelsea's for a little while and having some water, but she does have pneumonia, according to her physician, Dr. Lisa Bardack. Secretary Clinton has been advised to try resting up a bit, which is a little hard for a presidential candidate two months away from the election, but OK.
This year, Secretary Clinton's health has been an obsession, and not just with Donald Trump or the people who tried posting fake medical records on the internet. Everyone's hotly insisting that this fixation is totally reasonable and normal, but they are wrong. This level of heated speculation hasn't accompanied any major party candidates in my recollection, and Secretary Clinton is running up against the perennial problem of realizing that no matter how hard she tries to debunk the rumors, they aren't going to stop.
Even people who are ostensibly on the side of reason have piled on with the health conspiracy theories thing — Dr. David Scheiner, who used to treat President Obama, got himself an entire column in the Washington Post to sow the seeds of fear about Secretary Clinton's health. (To be fair, he also talked about Trump, who has been subjected to some speculation himself by people who think it's cool and appropriate to play armchair psychiatrist, to the point that the APA had to remind everyone about professional boundaries.)
Why are people so obsessed with Secretary Clinton's health, to the point that it could actually prove a spoiler in the election, especially after this weekend? Is this really a question of physical fitness for the office of the president, or is it...sexism? (Don't all raise your hands at once, class.)
Secretary Clinton is up against a long and complicated legacy. There are still plenty of people who think that women are unfit for leadership positions, let alone the presidency, on the grounds of Mysterious Lady Things. There's this notion that women are somehow too fragile and sensitive to handle the pressures of public office, and things like feeling faint after standing around in ridiculous heat while sick with pneumonia are pointed to as evidence of this. Surely no man would sicken under such conditions!
The idea that women are weak and inferior was one of the arguments used to deprive them of the vote — elections are too complicated and hard for little ladies to be wasting their time with. It's why pregnant women used to be kept in confinement, to avoid having anything untoward happen. It's one of the reasons why people think that women aren't fit to serve in combat positions. It's also why panels of male lawmakers opine on subjects like hormonal birth control and why organizations across the country back legislation to "protect women" from things like abortions.
This notion that women are inherently more unstable is also why people are speculating about her mental health: This country has an absolutely tormented relationship with mental illness, and it's convinced that any sign of mental "weakness" is evidence of being unfit. (Cool and fun story: Roughly half of U.S. presidents have showed signs of and/or been treated for mental illness, which is higher than the overall statistical representation of mental illness, about 20 percent of the population.)
Mental health stigma is a ferocious thing, but even more so for women — alongside the myth that women are weak and fragile runs the myth that women are "neurotic" and unpredictable. This folklore intensifies around menstruation and mysterious "female hormones," but not just menstruation — women in perimenopause are also stigmatized with claims that their hormones cause uncontrollable mood swings. In 2015, Dr. Julie Holland made a bizarre and sexist argument that Secretary Clinton is the "perfect age to be president" because she's no longer suffering the slings and arrows of perimenopause. (Evidently Dr. Holland is Secretary Clinton's clinician, and thus is familiar with the intimate workings of her health?)
It is not enough to suggest that Secretary Clinton's body isn't robust enough for the job — it's necessary also to attack her mind, to create the mental image of a president alternately fainting and popping Xanax all over the situation room. This is a tremendously loaded line of pursuit that tangles sexism and agism up in each other, suggesting that women in their 60s ought to be put out to pasture.
Secretary Clinton has made it further in U.S. politics than any woman in the nation's history, and it shows. She's challenging many people's fundamental understanding of the world, which is not supposed to be a place where women can run for president, and her opponents are looking for any point of perceived weakness — a case of temporary fatigue in the the context of this fraught climate is huge.
She's being pressured to release her medical records, as apparently people will not be satisfied until she's published her complete medical file from birth to today, even though no other candidate has faced such a demand. And this weekend's episode illustrates why she's not keen on releasing every fine-grained detail of her medical history. People are looking for assurance and proof that a woman really is incapable of navigating the political landscape, because it allows them to retain their sexist worldviews.
The real kicker is that this isn't just about scurrilous attacks from the right as it lashes out in an attempt to invalidate the Democratic candidate. Secretary Clinton is going up against not just sexism and attitudes about women's fitness, but a deep-seated hatred of all things Hillary Clinton that spreads across both the right and the left. Tagging her with some gruesome medical condition would certainly please the right, but a fair swath of the left would be smiling as well, and that says a great deal about the deep-seated sexism lying at the heart of the left.