No matter what path we take, as women our health conditions are viewed with mistrust and scorn.
After Hillary Clinton was escorted from a 9/11 memorial for “overheating,” the nation erupted in a storm of conjecture about her health. Clinton was even called upon to release her personal health information so the American public could judge whether she was fit for the presidency.
People get sick. This shouldn’t even be an issue in this campaign. Yet it’s not surprising that minor health problems are being used against Clinton.
Health concerns, whether real or imagined, have been used against women for centuries. By default, when a woman gets sick, her symptoms are evaluated against a construct that’s rooted in notions of female hysteria. While women are no longer locked up in psychiatric hospitals for physical health complaints, emergency room physicians are still taught to look for “hysterical females” and studies indicate that women are dramatically more likely than men to be diagnosed with a mental health condition when they present with physical health complaints.
Donald Trump began raising concerns about Clinton’s health after she had a coughing fit during a speaking engagement. Until Sunday afternoon, these concerns were based entirely upon conjecture and conspiracy theories. Even so, these rumors of poor health promptly took center stage, eclipsing all of Trump’s missteps and ideological quagmires.
We know now that there was a reason for Clinton’s coughing all along: pneumonia. But instead of quieting the controversy, news of her diagnosis has only seemed to complicate her presidential bid. The Democratic party has even been rumored to be holding an emergency meeting to consider replacing her.
Good health has never been a prerequisite for the presidency. Franklin Roosevelt was our most notably disabled president; at age 39, he contracted polio and suffered from total paralysis of both legs. Yet he is by no means the only president who experienced chronic illness. Many presidents have suffered from long-standing chronic health concerns, including presidents John F. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan.
Unlike past presidents who have coughed, collapsed, and even vomited on other world leaders, Clinton’s coughing fit raised immediate concerns that she was unfit for the presidency. Trump and his cronies would never use the word “hysterical” today, but it’s hard not to notice the relentless focus on Clinton’s health in this campaign, and the right’s dogged determination to prove her unfit for office by virtue of her health.
No matter how you slice it, it’s clear that anything less than perfect health in a presidential candidate—and particularly a female candidate—is unacceptable to many American voters.
As a disabled woman, I’m no stranger to judgment. I’m used to being looked up and down when I park in a handicapped parking spot or use a scooter to navigate a large store. I don’t “look sick,” strangers sometimes tell me, and that no man’s land between sick and healthy allows me to pass as “healthy” most of the time.
Like Clinton, I was taught to push through illness and health limitations at all costs. I worked at a demanding career until my body gave out on me. It is difficult for many people to believe that I am unable to work but it seems equally as difficult for people to believe that Clinton is capable of working. No matter what path we take, as women our health conditions are viewed with mistrust and scorn. We are scrutinized and criticized, and the underlying assumption is that we are incapable of making our own health-related decisions.
Clinton isn’t disabled or even chronically ill; pneumonia is a highly treatable illness. But even if she was, her health isn’t what determines her fitness for the presidency.
This controversy has shown that, regardless of what lip service we pay to disability rights, there are still many Americans who believe that the worst thing a presidential candidate can be isn’t racist, sexist, or xenophobic—it’s to be sick.
Especially if you’re a woman.