I recognize that I’m hitting this topic a little late, but I had a busy week last week and I still think it’s an important thing to discuss.
This isn’t really an article about Hillary Clinton. I mean sure I’m going to talk about Hillary Clinton, but she’s really just one example of thousands of women who work in the same sexist milieu. She is simply the highest profile example of something that we all experience when we are expected to overwork ourselves and still show up to work with a smile.
Last week, people became utterly concerned with Hillary Clinton’s health because it is one more way to show that she is unfit to be president. It’s a transparently sexist criticism, since we’ve had chronically ill presidents before and no one today seems particularly upset over that. Women are clearly inherently more frail, so any sign of weakness is evidence that she could drop at any moment.
In response, I’ve seen some memes along the lines of “Clinton had pneumonia and kept working. If that’s not strength, I don’t know what is!”
Neither of these seems like an appropriate response to a 68 year old woman fainting while working.
Instead, I think we should be asking some questions about how she ended up in this position. Why has she felt the need to continue working through pneumonia? Why has she made an additional effort to keep her illness hidden? What changes can we make so that people aren’t just passing out while they’re trying to do their jobs? What the fuck is wrong with our society that we feel we should criticize someone who has overworked themselves instead of offering them support?
Even more importantly, if someone who is as privileged as Hillary Clinton still feels these pressures, what about the average peons who don’t have thousands upon thousands of dollars and wealthy connections and basically every privilege box checked except for gender? I recognize that campaigning is something of a special circumstance, as it’s a directly competitive job, and if one candidate decides to keep working through illness, the other one almost has to in order to keep up. But I also see in the ways that we’re talking about Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia many of the same problematic attitudes that keep the average Joe at their job through sickness and injury.
The first element of the problem that I see is the evidence that no one is immune (pun intended) from having their health held up for public discussion. I’ve heard numerous times from friends with chronic illnesses that their bodies and abilities are suddenly considered public property the moment health comes up. This is doubly true for women, whose bodies already get discussed without their consent on a regular basis. Even though Hillary Clinton was trying very clearly to keep her health a private matter, hundreds of people seem to believe that it’s relevant to her job performance and her abilities.
That’s the second element that’s a problem to me. For people who are chronically ill, there are nowhere near enough employment protections to help them find and retain jobs, and this particular debacle highlights the way that “health” is considered a prerequisite for work. I think there are some layers of complexity here, because it’s true that there are some illnesses that can make it impossible to fulfill certain job duties, however our current system tends heavily towards providing few to no accommodations, judging people on a moral level for illness or sickness, and providing minimal time off to care for one’s health. That makes it really difficult to keep up work when you’re dealing with illness. If even our wealthiest and most privileged are struggling with finding a way to continue at their jobs without being criticized and nitpicked for any illness, then how are the rest of us supposed to get by?
Perhaps even more troubling is the response that says Clinton is exhibiting strength by working through pneumonia. Refusing to practice self care is not strength, it’s unhealthy and potentially dangerous. I understand the pressures that put Clinton in a position she felt she had to do it, but I don’t think we should be praising the behavior. We should be talking about how we create a culture where that’s kind of odd and worrisome.
Health SHOULD be a matter of national importance, but not for the reasons it’s being discussed now. It should be a matter of national importance because people don’t have adequate sick days or feel capable of taking their sick days without falling behind or being judged poorly by the higher ups. It should be a matter of national importance because we currently see it as completely normal to go to work while truly, dangerously ill, and because it’s considered evidence of a good attitude to prioritize work over health. It should be a matter of national importance because anyone who actually is chronically ill understands just how few opportunities there are for anyone who isn’t completely able bodied.
But it really shouldn’t be news because maybe someone who appears to be mostly in good health got sick and now we want to use it as additional evidence that she’s not good enough. There’s no world in which I would describe Hillary Clinton as “frail” but I also don’t want to praise her for continuing to exhibit behaviors that are unhealthy and are demanded of most of us in the real world where we’d get fired if we took a week off for health reasons.
So let’s talk about health and work. But let’s not talk about Hillary Clinton.