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Hostility and the Female Head of State (In the News)

Roll-callElizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, Calling the Roll After An Engagement, Crimea, 1874, Royal Collection

On June 16, Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast series, “Revisionist History” (“Sometimes history deserves a second chance”), begins airing with a segment bearing on Hillary Clinton’s situation should she become America’s first woman president. With the upcoming election very much in mind, Gladwell—writer and “social psychology popularizer,” as NPR’s Brian Lehrer dubs him—focuses his first episode on the first outsiders in any field to gain entrance to a closed world.

His prime example is the nineteenth-century British painter Elizabeth Thompson, whose painting The Roll Call was a sensation in the 1870s. “It was the most popular painting in England,” Gladwell tells Lehrer. “People thought it would break the all-male patriarchal world of painting. There’s great excitement as this first outsider steps into this male world. Everyone waits . . .  and waits  . . . and waits for the revolution to happen.”

But it doesn’t happen, and that’s Gladwell’s point—that often, those privileged to be members of a closed world, having presumably shown their openness by letting an outsider in, then close ranks and go back to their old exclusionary ways.  “They wouldn’t show any of [the paintings Thompson did] after Roll Call,” Gladwell says.

Take, for instance, what happens after a woman is elected head of state. “Countries with a female head of state almost never elect another,” he notes.  He points to recent Australian prime minister Julia Gillard: “The minute she gets elected, she is subjected to an extraordinary torrent of abuse . . .  outrageously sexist abuse . . . it is chilling.” If Hillary Clinton is elected, he wonders, will her election unleash a similar torrent of hostility? “I think a similar thing happened to Barack Obama, absolutely.  I think he was subjected to a level of behavior that we never saw before on the part of critics of a sitting president .”

Why all those backlashes? “It’s the idea I call ‘moral licensing’,” Gladwell states. “If people do one good thing, they feel free to do a bad thing to compensate.”

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