- Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 campaign was only a few hours old when a story questioning whether the Massachusetts senator was “likable” enough to be president went viral. Many immediately pointed out the sexism in the piece, noting that male candidates are often not given the same scrutiny.
- Warren is the only woman so far to launch a 2020 campaign, but she could soon be joined by Senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand.
- INSIDER spoke with political experts about what female presidential candidates can expect from voters and the media in 2020.
Elizabeth Warren had just announced her bid for the presidency when a POLITICO story about her went viral – for the wrong reasons.
The story posed the following question: “How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux – written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?” On Twitter, readers immediately hit back, saying the criticism – being “unlikable” – is one often ascribed to women, rarely men. The story sparked a debate online: Will women running for president in 2020 face the same kind of gendered scrutiny that Hillary Clinton often had to deal with in 2016?
Some experts say yes.
“It would be nice to think that there’s been some kind of mass learning from the mistakes of the last two election cycles,” said media critic Soraya Chemaly, author of “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.” “I’m a little more cynical than that.”
Society, Chemaly said, is still “so profoundly shaped by sex segregation culturally that the news thinks that women compete against women and men compete against men.”
“You see that constantly in the way they talk about a woman candidate and compare her, for example, not to the entire field of candidates, but to other women,” she said. “We see that over and over and over again. And that’s a pretty subtle but still not benign kind of sexism that sort of separate spheres of politics.”
Warren is the first woman to announce a bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination bid. Many expect fellow Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris to join her in the race. If they do, the 2020 Democratic primary field might have the most women ever in a presidential race. And though the majority of the likely candidates are men, that still might mean that many of the women running for the White House will receive different scrutiny than their male counterparts.
‘The rhetoric around women’s places hasn’t changed much.’
Brandeis University professor Amber Spry, who specialises in political attitudes and behaviour in United States politics, said that media coverage of the 2016 election focused a lot on Clinton’s fitness for the role “in ways that were very, very obviously gendered.”
“In a lot of ways, 2016 revealed that even though we’ve made a lot of progress as a country in the way that we think about women and their place in work and their place in politics,” she said, “we still saw the media kind of gravitating towards these very familiar tropes about whether she was dressed appropriately … or her mannerisms and the way she was speaking.”
Mary-Kate Lizotte, a political science professor at Stony Brook University, said she doesn’t “expect a lot of differences” between the way voters and the media treated women running for the White House in 2016 and the way they’re angling to talk about women candidates now.
“It’s going to take much longer for a woman who’s running for president to be treated and perceived differently than Hillary Clinton was,” she said.
Female candidates, she said, often have to find the balance between “being a woman, but not too feminine, but not too masculine, and being ‘likable.'” For Warren, she said, this examination is already happening.
Lizotte quoted research by political science professors Nichole Bauer and Kathleen Dolan that found that voters are more likely to respond favourably to a female candidate if she appears “knowledgeable on masculine issues such as the economy and foreign affairs, instead of simply focusing on issues voters associate with women – such as welfare and abortion.”
Female candidates, Dolan’s research found, are perceived as less competent on dealing with military and economic issues.
In her own research, Lizotte has studied the adverse effects of discussing female political candidates’ attractiveness – from the 2008 commentary on Sarah Palin’s beauty pageant background to discussion of the way Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina dressed in 2016. Lizotte’s study found that the more a female candidate is described as attractive, the more she will be perceived as more feminine and, thus, “not possessing the traits necessary to fulfil the role of an elected official.”
Lizotte’s research found that male candidates described as attractive will be viewed as more masculine, “which may enhance perceptions of their suitability for office.” It may also, however, lead to negative assumptions about their vanity and intellect.
“Female candidates, when they’re described as being very physically attractive, they’re seen by voters to be less intelligent and less qualified,” she said.
‘Some democratic voters might be a little hesitant to nominate another female candidate’
For some voters, the scars of the 2016 election remain, and Clinton’s underperformance might deter them from supporting a new female candidate. Though this is a possibility, Lizotte said she doesn’t think it is enough justification to scratch women out of the race.
“I’m not sure if that’s going to be enough of an influence to prevent that, even if they are a little bit hesitant,” she said. “If ultimately someone is performing well and seems electable, I think they will probably overcome that hesitancy.”
Voters may have sent a record 103 women to Congress during the 2018 midterm elections, but if the Democratic presidential nominee is a woman, she will likely face the same level of criticism Donald Trump gave Clinton in 2016. Chemaly pointed out that, had Clinton tried to leverage anger against her critics the way male candidates do, she would have been reviled.
“There’s still a stunning lack of self-awareness in media about the ways that the language and the headlines and the photo choices in the framing shape public opinion, subtly biasing people against seeing women as leaders,” she said.
Trump’s adversaries, particularly the women running against him, will similarly have to measure the ways they react to his attacks, which range from poorly-crafted nicknames, to late-night Twitter rants, to threats disguised as rally chants.
Any candidate who faces Trump in the general election, Lizotte said, must be prepared to face him and these attacks with authentic emotion. Female candidates, she added, might face the same dilemma women in business often encounter: proving that they can be many things at once – competent and tough, but also as nice and empathetic as possible.
As long as women are able to show that they have “a multitude of emotions and they’re not always angry or always saddened by something, if they kind of show a full range of authentic emotion,” voters will likely perceive them positively, she said.
Another challenge for female candidates in 2020 will likely be a deeper inspection of their qualifications than their male counterparts. Chemaly pointed out that, while female candidates tend to be extremely qualified for office – Barack Obama once said nobody was more qualified to be president than Hillary Clinton – there is still an overabundance of “mediocre” men who are not qualified for office, and not enough underqualified women.
The women who are likely to run for the presidency, she said, are “exceptionally smart, driven, ambitious, competent people.”
“Women are held to different standards,” Chemaly said. “In truth, what we want to see is mediocre women that are unexceptional. We want it to be that case that not every woman has to be excessively overqualified. While that would be great, in fact what we have is a situation where there are far too many unqualified men, not under-qualified, but downright unqualified.”
‘This is not just just a political moment, a blip on the scale’
As the country waits for Harris, a Democrat from California and the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father, to announce a 2020 bid, Spry wants the media to consider an important point. Harris has already emerged as a potential candidate, with or without a formal announcement, which says a lot not just about her leadership potential, but about the kind of leader people want in this political moment.
“We’ve had this history as a country of exclusion and restrictions for people who look like Kamala Harris,” she said. “People are excited to engage with the idea that, this, this thing that we hold as the American dream, which is that anybody can achieve and do incredible things – Kamala Harris embodies that possibility.”
For Spry, the success of many women in the midterm elections proves that what we’re in living now is “not just a political moment, a blip on the scale.”
“This is the voices of Americans saying we believe in equality, we believe in change, we believe that people can make a difference,” she said. “It’s exciting to see that possibility come to fruition for an increasingly diverse crop of political candidates.”
When picking a 2020 frontrunner, the Democratic Party has to figure out not just how to develop ideological unity and what that will look like in a candidate, but it also has to decide what identities they want reflected in a presidential nominee, Spry added.
“Race, gender, class – these kinds of identities are always present in politics,” she said. “But there are times when social identity rises to the surface in particularly important ways, and right now those those things that are at the top of voters’ minds.”
These issues, she said, include gender equality and women’s rights – politically and otherwise – and will likely be championed by all Democratic female candidates. Male candidates should hope to do so too.
Spry said she expects to see more broad conversations about women’s rights and sexism in the upcoming election cycle as the #MeToo movement has left behind “a shared vocabulary for people to engage with these kind of issues.”
And while Democratic voters might be energised by identity politics, Lizotte warned against emphasising identity in the general election, saying female candidates might fare better if they chose a slogan more populous than Clinton’s “I’m With Her.”
Chemaly said she remains hopeful that the women who won in the midterms – and even those who lost such as failed Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams – are the first in a new generation of female candidates who have publicly called out institutional injustice in the US political sphere.
“It’s important to call out sexism and racism when it’s happening,” Chemaly said. “For a time, the traditional wisdom was just ‘don’t say anything and soldier on,’ and it turns out that that’s not great.'”