In 2016, Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to secure the Democratic nomination for president. In 2020, the Democratic party has seen a plethora of female contenders vying for the presidency. While these are both notable accomplishments that should in no way be diminished, there is still a prevalent gender bias in politics which places women who run for the presidency at a firm disadvantage. Hillary Clinton was no stranger to this, and Senator Elizabeth Warren is finding herself in a similar position with the 2020 election fast approaching.
This election cycle saw a significant increase in the number of female candidates running for the Democratic nomination. With Senator Amy Klobuchar dropping out yesterday, it leaves Warren as the primary female candidate left as Super Tuesday nears. However, her status as a woman brings up the same question that any female candidate is asked: Is she electable? The question of electability is in some ways inherently sexist as men are never questioned about this. Instead, they are just assumed to be electable because the history of the presidency has been solely male up to this point. Women, however, are tasked with proving that they are electable. This is no simple feat, as electibility is an inherently ambiguous concept.
It is extremely difficult for women in politics to find a balance between demonstrating that they are figures of authority without coming across as harsh or polarizing. Clinton faced this issue several times during her political career. In 2015, she was accused of “shouting” about gun violence, to which she astutely pointed out that people often think women are shouting when they are simply expressing a point.
Female politicians are put under extreme scrutiny for every facial expression, outfit choice, word choice and countless other minute details in ways that male politicians just aren’t. Bernie Sanders is a perfect example of this: During his 2016 presidential run, he was often praised by his supporters for his emphatic displays of emotion. When he shouted and wagged his fingers at his audience, he incited applause rather than criticism. While Sanders was seen as passionate, Clinton was seen as passionless. And when she did put on an emotional display, it was perceived as shrill. The exact same behavior can be interpreted in vastly different ways depending on whether or not it is being exhibited by a man or a woman, and that is unacceptable.
The question of electability is in some ways inherently sexist as men are never questioned about this.
Female candidates often have to prove their likability just as much as their qualifications. Even if voters think a woman is qualified, they won’t vote for her if they don’t view her as likable. This unfair logic doesn’t hold true for men because voters will vote for a man they don’t like as long as they think he is qualified. Unfortunately, there is still a prevalent perception that ambitious women are unlikable. This clearly goes against the favor of female candidates because running for president is one of the most ambitious decisions any citizen of the United States can make. However, while voters perceive ambitious women as harsh and angry, they perceive ambitious men as strong and competent.
One of the reasons that successful women are judged so harshly is because the characteristics which aided them in achieving that success go against society’s expectations for how a woman is supposed to act. Though society is becoming progressively more open-minded, there is still an inherent discomfort where women in positions of power are concerned. In general, the characteristics that voters say they want from their politicians tend to encompass traditionally masculine adjectives like strength and toughness; yet when any female candidate expresses these qualities, they are met with criticism instead of praise.
Interestingly, it seems that the general public is more accepting of women who take smaller steps to further their political careers. It is mainly when women take the final step of running for president that they begin to question her credibility. For example, Clinton was viewed favorably while she was secretary of state, as was Warren when she was a senator, but both of them have faced intense scrutiny after announcing their run for the presidency. In the years leading up to her presidential run, Clinton continually had her favorable rating drop every time she announced she was seeking a higher political position, indicating that society doesn’t respond well to women who they consider power-seeking.
One of the biggest hindrances to the women running in 2020 is Donald Trump. There is a general sense of risk aversion in the political climate which has always made it more challenging for a woman to secure a nomination, let alone win the presidential election. But after Trump’s win shocked the nation in 2016, the Democrats are even more likely to play it safe when it comes to selecting a candidate. The 2020 Democratic nominee may not necessarily be the best candidate, but rather the person who the party thinks has the best chance to beat Trump. This then begs the question of whether or not voters believe that Warren is the person capable of doing so.
While past evidence, particularly the Clinton 2016 campaign, indicates that a female candidate will not be successful against Trump, one must be cautious of this mindset. Clinton has acknowledged the role that sexism played in her run for the presidency, but she and members of her staff have also admitted that sexism may not have been the deciding factor in the 2016 election. There were too many other issues at play, including the Electoral College system, divisions within the Democratic party and low voter turnout, to decisively say that sexism was the sole cause of the result.
It’s critical to remember that Clinton’s loss to Trump doesn’t mean that a woman can’t win an election against him. The 2018 midterm elections proved that female candidates are more than capable of displacing their male opponents and that authenticity is a factor the general public takes into consideration when voting. However, the presidential election is a huge step above the midterm elections and significant progress must be made. It’s important to be aware of any implicit gender bias prior to voting in the upcoming election and make an informed decision while knowing all the facts. Women should not be discounted simply because Trump is their opponent, as he has already done enough to infringe upon women’s rights.
Surya Swaroop wants to condemn the prevalent sexism and gender bias in politics — particularly with the upcoming 2020 presidential election.