I’ve got something of a beef with Hillary Clinton. Preparations for the U.S. launch of my book, Attack of the 50 Ft. Women, had been under way for some months when she announced her memoir was due to drop on the same day. My publishers responded by pulling my publication date a week earlier, to September 5, playing havoc with promotional schedules and my personal plans.
Still, first glimpses of Clinton’s What Happened are intriguing and frankly I can’t wait to read it, just as I will devour Ellen Pao’s Reset. “Maybe I have over-learned the lesson of staying calm, biting my tongue,” Clinton observes of her stoic performance during the second presidential debate. She considered confronting Donald Trump as he repeatedly invaded her space. Instead she affected not to notice him. Her anecdote points both to a weakness of her campaign and to a mistake that women routinely make. By schooling ourselves to stay calm and bite our tongues, we better navigate misogynistic systems that penalize us for speaking out. We don’t change those systems.
I say this not as a reproach to Clinton but as a someone has made the same mistake. For years I rose in journalism, staying calm and biting my tongue in the face of smaller invasions of my space, institutional and individual sexism and, latterly, ageism. I believed I was making a difference, and so I was, but not enough. I am currently suing TIME for sex and age discrimination. My experience at TIME forced me to confront how little impact even a senior woman is likely to have on a culture that in drawing on too narrow a range of perspectives really only sees and values a particular type of men and men’s stories.
This matters far beyond my own case. In operating as a club, the media misses trends and muddles analyses, becoming ever more disconnected from the populations it is meant to serve. Politics is just the same. In 2015, I co-founded the (U.K.) Women’s Equality Party to try to break open the Westminster club that, just like its Washington counterpart, in excluding and marginalizing women fails everyone. People don’t trust politics or a media that speaks only for and to a privileged few — and why would they? The vacuum is too easily filled with noxious populism, the anger too easily channeled toward false scapegoats such as refugees, oppressed minorities and uppity women.
This phenomenon is playing out both sides of the Atlantic, in Brexit and Trump. Voters chose change at any cost — and what a cost. Clinton owes her defeat in large part to a destructive narrative that painted her as an insider, an avatar of the status quo. First Bernie Sanders seized the mantle of the insurgent and then, incredibly, it passed to Trump, a scion of extraordinary privilege.
Yet it always belonged to Clinton. Such privilege as she enjoyed was circumscribed, just as the privilege of the white women who voted for Trump in such numbers is limited. Clinton had occupied the White House, but never on her own terms. Her career encompassed notable achievements and a few notorious missteps, but she was only ever permitted to own the latter. She faced toxic sexism and the gendered ageism that across politics and the media grants wisdom to older men and pastures older women. She is a woman.
As I point out in Attack of the 50 Ft. Women, only 11.8 percent of world leaders are women. Women make up around 40 percent of the labor force but hold just one percent of global capital. Violence against women is endemic. Everywhere in the world women are at best second-class citizens, demoted further down the unnatural order by factors such as economic class, race, disability, age, and sexuality. Clinton highlighted these realities in her campaign but almost never acknowledged the structural barriers she bumped up against every day.
I don’t pretend to know if she would have increased her 2.7 million vote lead over Trump by speaking out more often and more passionately. She already found herself accused of shouting when speaking at normal volume. Everyone of every gender is brought up to regard ambitious men with approval and women seeking power with suspicion. To offset this disadvantage, women learn to defer, to soften the edges of sentences and insert placatory phrases to avoid committing the heinous crime of holding strong opinions while female.
When women assert ourselves, we confirm the bias against us, unconscious and otherwise. When we speak out, we identify ourselves as troublemakers. This is why I look forward to reading Ellen Pao’s account of her tribulations in Silicon Valley. (I laughed inwardly when TIME in July 2015, less than four months after my involuntary exit, praised her as “the face of change” for bringing a discrimination suit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and fighting sexism at Reddit.)
The stakes are high, because women are already at a disadvantage. It’s tempting to try to hold on to what you’ve got, and the risks are greater the less you have. Even so, Clinton’s story, Pao’s and my own in different ways illustrate how no woman is ever secure and that we will only ever close the gender gap by taking risks. It’s time to un-learn the lessons of staying calm and biting our tongues.
Catherine Mayer is a journalist, author and President of the Women’s Equality Party. Her new book, Attack of the 50 Ft. Women: From man-made mess to a better future – the truth about global inequality and how to unleash female potential is published on September 5 by HQ, Harper Collins. Follow her on Twitter here , on Instagram here and on her website here.