Ambitious, Over-Prepared, Opportunistic: America’s Problem With Female Politicians
How can we elect a female president in a country determined not to?
Reactions to New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s steady climb to national stardom are pretty much what you’d expect given her status as an ambitious, high-achieving woman existing in the 21st century. Last month we witnessed the slut-shaming route pursued by our notoriously classy president, who is apparently convinced women can only rise to power by “doing anything” for men. And last week, a widely shared Daily Beast op-ed went down another, equally predictable road by dishing out the typical criticisms made of any woman who has strayed too far from the kitchen and been identified as the worst thing you could accuse a woman of being in a patriarchal society: ambitious.
In the op-ed, writer Ciro Scotti seems to ignore Gillibrand’s long record of outspokenness and reform on sexual assault, spanning back to when it would perhaps have been advantageous to be silent, as he dismisses her initiative in being the first major Democrat to call for former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s resignation as mere “political calculation.” According to Scotti, it was Gillibrand’s “relentless positioning for a possible presidential run in 2020” rather than genuine concern for the fact that, by that point, six women had come forward to accuse Franken of groping and inappropriate sexual contact, that motivated her decision.
The field of Democratic contenders for the party nomination in 2020 will, of course, be narrowed by the end of Franken’s political career. But nonetheless, it should speak volumes that Scotti believes someone would have to pretend to be outraged by a man abusing his power to assault women, that a woman he’s perceived as ambitious is more likely to be a soulless opportunist than a human being with real opinions. The op-ed cites plenty more examples of Gillibrand’s alleged inauthenticity and opportunism, including—unrelated to her leadership on sexual assault reform—her gradual shift to the left on gun control from more conservative stances she once held.
If all of this sounds maddeningly familiar, that’s only because it is.
The 2016 election, from the Democratic primary to the general election campaign trail, was paved with the op-ed’s same sentiments. The repulsion of Bernie Sanders’ supporters with Clinton’s shift from opposition to support for marriage equality was so great it seemed they would have preferred that she’d maintained a homophobic, repressive political stance rather than be a woman who changed her mind. And across the aisle, an overarching narrative of untrustworthiness and purely self-serving motives—one that wrote out four decades of thankless public service—was woven around Clinton by progressives and conservatives alike.
Today, popular female lawmakers like Calif. Sen. Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren—both vastly qualified public servants—face criticisms of a similar nature. In the same way, gendered demands for perfection and ideological purity by the far-left Sanders wing of the Democratic Party weighed on Clinton from the primary to the general, the moment Harris’ name began being passed around last summer, the Sanders wing applied the exact same treatment to her.
The same accusations of inauthenticity, establishment ties, corruption and coziness with donors that Trump supporters hijacked to attack Clinton in the general election are already being used to slander Harris. And as for Warren, despite how neatly she fits the mold of an economic progressive who’s been fighting the same fight for years, the same likability politics that haunted Clinton are arguably in play here. A widely held belief among many Democrats is that Warren shouldn’t run because she’s too polarizing to be electable.
Despite how Sanders and Warren are, in many ways, just the male and female versions of each other, 2017 polling shows Sanders is decently liked across the aisle while Warren is passionately despised by everyone outside of her general base of supporters. In other words, it’s not her stances and candor—which she shares with the notably male Bernie Sanders—that render her “unelectable.” It’s her gender.
The national elephant in the room seems to be this: How can we elect a woman in a country that, while deeply divided, seems united in its determination not to? The answer to this question will take something of a national reckoning.
The simple truth seems to be that, instead of admitting that our country which prides itself on equality and limitless opportunity for all is too sexist to elect a female president, we’d rather go down a cheaper, easier route instead. That is, by making the standards so high and the office so utterly unattainable for women that we never have to admit to or grapple with the lingering existence of our nation’s centuries-old tradition of misogyny.
How, exactly, are female politicians supposed to respond to being called “inauthentic?”
When it comes to accusations of inauthenticity, to demands for female politicians to be more “real” and “relatable,” there’s really no way they can win. In showing emotion and the very vulnerability that render people relatable to each other, female politicians would be deemed feminine and, as a result, weak and dissociated with leadership. In failing to show the perfect amount of emotion—whatever that may be—female politicians would be deemed cold, unrelatable and, of course, unlikable. Women can’t even know the facts without being perceived as trying too hard, or, in the words of NBC’s Chuck Todd, seeming “over-prepared” and, as a result, unlikable.
@chucktodd: #debatenight exposed Trump's lack of preparation, but Clinton seemed over-prepared at times.
As part of an article documenting the professional consequences of women being perceived as having greater aspirations, Forbes procured a list of headlines focused on framing Clinton’s ambition with starkly negative connotations. One went so far as to call her ambition “pathological” (“Is Hillary Clinton Pathologically Ambitious?”); another implied that the cost of a woman, perceived as unlikable, gaining political power was so outrageous as to doom a major American political party (“Don’t Destroy the Dems To Satisfy Clinton’s Ambitions”). Yet another headline identified Clinton’s aspirations at the presidency as a “curse” (“The Curse of Hillary Clinton’s Ambition”). Another seemed to directly equate ambition to lack of “principles” (“Flip-flops Show Clinton Is Long On Ambition, Short On Principles”).
Stanford University research from 2015 exposed the myriad interpersonal hoops women in the workplace are forced to jump through just to not be stereotyped as bossy or cold, or “less likable than their male peers” and be successful. These frustrating double standards are only magnified on the public stage, as female politicians’ careers and public office bids are deeply affected by perceptions of them.
In 2016, Clinton discussed how the intense pressures of being the only woman in a room of LSAT exam-takers were what first made her internalize the necessity of withholding her emotions. As a young woman, Clinton had been conditioned to hide her emotions in order to fit in and survive in a room—and a profession—full of men. And all her life since, she’s been punished for it.
And as for the extent to which emotional instability and craziness are viewed as inherent to the female nature, recall then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s claim that Megyn Kelly was on her period when she confronted him with tough questions at the first presidential debate in 2015.
In either case, speaking of lose-lose situations, what’s the proper response to being accused of political opportunism, that most nefarious thing that any female politician suspected of having higher ambitions can expect to be criticized for?
Notably, despite demanding Clinton’s full ideological submission and embrace of socialism, Clinton’s adoption of paths to public health care and tuition-free college in her platform after the primary were received with even more accusations of pandering and inauthenticity from the Sanders wing. Even with the eventual endorsement of its leader, she couldn’t win, and it increasingly seems like no woman can.
What we’re seeing seems to be a demand for female politicians to take bold stances to prove they’re not “establishment,” only to be blasted for being opportunistic and inauthentic when they do. Claims that Gillibrand simply has her eye on 2020 after the senator supported universal health care and, last month, demanded that a serially accused sexual predator resign from the Senate starkly reflect this.
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Having the same qualifications as men isn’t enough.
In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump, a man who had never held public office, is the subject of more than a dozen accusations of sexual assault and misconduct, and allegedly had to ask a foreign policy expert not once but three times why, exactly, the United States can’t simply unleash nuclear power on its enemies, beat Hillary Clinton, a woman with more qualifications than any other presidential candidate in history.
Both had “establishment” ties, Trump arguably more so having been born into great wealth and for decades using his wealth to influence the same political elites he now pretends he’s never had anything to do with. But despite this, only one of them—the woman—was deemed ineligible and untrustworthy because of this.
For men, it seems with the right amount of economic privilege and appeals to deep-seated racism and gendered insecurity, anything is possible. In contrast, for women, it seems no amount of qualifications is enough to counter the impossible game of likability politics that goes hand-in-hand with female authority or any aspirations to it.
Ultimately, the lure of voting for literally any male—regardless of inexperience and sheer incompetence—over Hillary, and perhaps voting for literally any male over a woman in general, was particularly strong among the tradition-revering Americans who elected Trump and his “Make America Great Again” agenda. They were sick of an America where LGBTQ Americans, people of color, and, of course, women, are taking what’s always belonged to and oppressing the white man— sick of an America that doesn’t exist and never has.
Trump lured men who were brought up to view diversity and the enfranchisement of women as threats to their power with the promise that he could take them back to a time in our nation’s history when they were the dominant group. These men constitute the very demographic that is mortally offended, even horrified, by women surpassing them in professional and economic success while they’re forced to suffer through an economy they believe has failed them, where it was once not so long ago built solely for them and their ancestors. The notion of a woman achieving the highest office in the land while they, as men, are forced to exist in either poverty or mediocrity was too much to bear. Such is the repulsion for female authority and its implications for male dominance that has the limitless potential to shut down female candidates.
The conflict of policy vs. representation.
However frustratingly gendered and subjective the word “electable” might be, there are legitimate concerns about the importance of electing Democrats and progressives. After all, the alternative could be even more political victories for Republican lawmakers who, if they follow their party platform, will either enable or outright empower the war on women’s rights on every level of government.
Objectively speaking, the surge of the Tea Party in rural states throughout the 2010s marks the onset of one of the most dangerous periods for women’s health in recent history. The emergence of a new wave of conservative lawmakers saw an unprecedented passage of dangerous restrictions on abortion: In five short years between 2011 and 2016, a quarter of all restrictions on the procedure since Roe v. Wade in 1973 were passed. The United States’ maternal mortality rate steadily rose as it reached the highest in the industrialized world, with disproportionately higher rates in states with more barriers to reproductive health care. Today, almost 90 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider.
At least on a federal level, elected Republicans consistently oppose measures to economically enfranchise women by voting against equal pay and paid family leave, and in most states, have fought back against seemingly bipartisan laws to promote rape kit use and protect sexual assault and domestic abuse victims’ rights.
There’s no question that electing Republicans often hurts women. In that sense, the Democratic Party’s paranoia-fueled pursuit of “electable” candidates is understandable—it matters that we prevent anti-woman Republicans from winning elections, because the consequences for women’s rights would be objectively dangerous.
But the collective national misogyny hurling extra challenges at women running for office isn’t the only barrier to addressing the problem of our 80 percent male Congress, 75 percent male state legislatures, and notable lack of female presidents.
The idea that we should not back women for office because they won’t win is just as harmful. And here’s the thing: It isn’t political caution — it’s an idea of sheer laziness, not to mention sexism.
The election of pro-choice Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama proved to Democrats that the key to winning in red states isn’t compromising on fundamental values, but grassroots political engagement with people of color, young people, and the innumerable disillusioned voters in any given state. Pandering to the sexism of a nation is a woefully short-term solution—and it’s also a wholly unnecessary one.
If we preemptively oppose women running, whether for president or city councilor, because we think they won’t win, they never will win. And as a result, we will never live in a country where anything is possible for women.