What must a woman in politics do to be likeable?
Well, in the past few weeks we’ve at least learned what they’re not allowed to do.
They mustn’t swear, like Rashida Tlaib. They mustn’t be too old and outdated in their approach, like Nancy Pelosi. Or too young and untested, like Alexandra Occasio-Cortez. They mustn’t be Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard professor who seems detached from regular voters. They mustn’t be Hillary Clinton, at all, whose voice was shrill and who everyone decided they hated for too many reasons to list, though some of them extended to thinking she might literally be a demon from Hell.
When you mention that people sure do seem to dislike women in politics, people will very adamantly declare they love women. They just do not like those particular women. And it’s not that they’re sexist, people will assure you. It’s just that all these women have flaws.
And you know what? They do have flaws. Brushing criticism of these women off as coming only from openly sexist nitwits who hate them merely because they hate, for instance, women’s voices, is somewhat reductive. Warren’s reveal of her Native American heritage was atrocious. Alexandra Occassio Cortez should be careful not to misstate basic facts. Hillary Clinton should not have murdered Vince Foster. I am joking. She didn’t do that, but she could have ensured that the Benghazi compound was better prepared for any attacks.
But here is the thing-all people have flaws. All of them. All people make mistakes. All of us have done dumb things in the past. To that end, I am hard pressed to think of a male President who does not have flaws, which has not stopped there being 45 of them.
That assessment is especially true of Donald Trump, a man whose entire personality seems clumsily cobbled together out of flaw after flaw. But even among others, no one could say Richard Nixon was especially charismatic, and he became President. Nor could anyone say that Bill Clinton seemed to have a strict relationship with the truth, and it didn’t stop him from becoming President. Going back a bit farther-President Pierce was an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis of the liver. And Woodrow Wilson was so racist, that he was considered extremely racist during his own time, when The Birth of a Nation (a 1915 film on the birth of the Ku Klux Klan) was being shown as fun family entertainment.
The problems that seem valid with these female candidates-the problems that are not of the obviously sexist “I hate her haircut” school of thought-are flaws, certainly. I would deeply prefer that we have a candidate who is a beacon of morality and honest at all times and who, by some wonderful coincidence, also likes exactly the same things I like. Sadly, in all of human history, I cannot find a single person who meets that description. And while male candidates’ flaws seem to be glanced at with bleary-eyed nonchalance, women’s are examined with a microscope.
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Let's look at the last female candidate for President. While Benghazi became a rallying cry for the right to use against Hillary Clinton, Fox News never reported that 20 similar incidents occurred under George Bush. People responded with rage to Hillary Clinton using a private email for state business, but when it was revealed that Mike Pence had done so, and that his account had actually been hacked, it raised barely a murmur of protest. And while Hillary Clinton was considered an out of touch elitist for giving a speech to Goldman Sachs, Barack Obama, who gave speeches netting $1.2 million to Wall Street firms, remains beloved.
The sexism that keeps women from being elected isn’t that people are just too hung up on their being female to notice they're perfect. Women are certainly no more inherently likeable or unlikeable than men. It’s that men are given the freedom to fail, or behave foolishly, and be forgiven. Often repeatedly.
\"Men are given the freedom to fail, or behave foolishly, and be forgiven.\"
In order for a male politician to be regarded with the same suspicion as a female politician, they have to either have an affair (this seemed to disqualify Gary Hart), or kill someone (as Ted Kennedy did).
A male candidate's offenses have to be incredibly obvious, and, even then, perhaps they might be forgiven. Trump himself claimed he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters, and, given his base’s devotion, I’ve come to believe he might be right.
Women, meanwhile, can be criticized quite vehemently for dancing, as if we live in that town in Footloose.
That’s not to say people who find female politicians especially objectionable don’t like women in private life. No doubt they love their moms, their daughters, Betty White. But as a society, we do tend to like women more if they are in spheres where they are nurturing and forgiving men around them.
Marianne Cooper noted in the Harvard Business Review: “What is really going on, as peer reviewed studies continually find, is that high-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success-and specifically the behaviors that created that success-violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing.”
\"As a society, we tend to like women more if they are nurturing and forgiving men around them.\"
Given that running for President or high political office is an audacious thing for anyone to attempt, it’s hard to be perceived as terribly sweet as you do it. The mere fact that women are running at all is enough to inspire some level of suspicion about them that you can’t really imagine would be extended if, say, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez was just a young mother in your neighborhood pushing a baby stroller.
We’re conditioned to dislike these women from the start. All of the justifications about how they did a dumb thing once, and that’s why we hate them, come later.
If these women don’t seem “likeable,” that’s because we are not a society that has a tendency towards liking women in power-even if we consider ourselves fair-minded and modern. But I have a hard time believing that any one of these women is more inherently flawed or less likeable than the man currently leading the country.