Hillary Clinton is having a bad week. She was diagnosed with pneumonia and collapsed while attending a memorial for the September 11 attacks in New York.
Now questions are being raised about the robustness of her health and her fitness, literally, for the presidency.
But for my money the most discouraging episode of Clinton’s week was the moment when she felt it necessary to explain to voters why she sometimes comes across as “aloof or cold or unemotional”, or “walled off”.
An explanation precisely zero male politicians have ever had to make.
In a stealth public relations move, Clinton featured on the popular blog “Humans of New York”, which tells the stories of everyday New Yorkers.
Pictured in one of her trademark pantsuits, Clinton tells the story of taking the law admissions test at Harvard, as one of two women in the room.
They faced, she said, a barrage of harassment from the male students. ‘A group of men began to yell things like: ‘You don’t need to be here.’ And ‘There’s plenty else you can do.’ It turned into a real ‘pile on’. One of them even said: ‘If you take my spot, I’ll get drafted, and I’ll go to Vietnam, and I’ll die.’” Faced with this kind of harassment and emotional blackmail, Clinton buttoned herself down.
As she entered public life, it became a self-preserving habit.
“I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions,” she wrote. “Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem walled off.”
She then apologises and “takes responsibility for” appearing unemotional.
What Clinton describes – that fine balance between drawing a psychological boundary around yourself, yet worrying that in doing so you will be labelled a bitch - is familiar to every woman who’s ever faced a male bully.
And so, pretty much all of us.
"I had to learn to control my emotions.... but at the same time you don't want to seem walled off"Hillary Clinton
Ever been in a bar, or queueing for the train, or even just walking down the street and minding your own business, only to have a random man yell at you, ‘Hey, cheer up! It might never happen!” like he is the world’s most Wildean wit?
That is what Clinton is facing on a national, and even a global scale.
The criticisms of Clinton as cold, lacking empathy, lacking the human touch, being “bad with people” have always been with her, but have intensified during the presidential race, where such a premium is put on charisma and compelling oratory.
It is a race which implicitly favour men, because it’s only men who have ever competed in it.
Clinton’s acknowledged skills – listening, and efficiently getting things done behind the scenes – are just not performative enough.
Listening and crunching policy compromises don’t make for a good grab on the nightly news, and they can’t be reduced to a quote or a sound bite to feed the media beast.
So Clinton goes out and plays the game and does what doesn’t come naturally to her – orating, pressing the flesh, trying to pass the “front bar” test, where you have to come across as the kinda swell guy voters would like to have a beer and shoot the breeze with.
For that, shows of emotion are required. But here’s the catch. Showing excess emotion is precisely the thing women in politics get criticised for doing.
Remember when Julia Gillard was criticised for not showing enough emotion over the Queensland flood victims? And then she teared up in parliament and it was viewed as somehow emotionally manipulative? She couldn’t win.
Hillary has a similar problem. She is being urged to show voters something approximating the charisma of Barack Obama, or her husband Bill Clinton.
But while she exerts herself in that way, she cannot over-reach, because then she will be written off as angry, shrill, or the worst thing a woman seeking a serious job can be called: “emotional”.
Is it any wonder that sometimes Clinton’s underlying irritation shows? Why should it matter if some voters think she’s a cold fish?
Is she competent, is she qualified? Will she do a good job?
It’s so frustrating, it makes you want to cry.
Except, if you’re Clinton, you daren’t.
Jacqueline Maley is a Parliamentary sketch writer at The Sydney Morning Herald