Five women are running for president. Let’s focus on their policy, not their likability.
On February 9, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced that she’s officially running for president. The next day, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) jumped in the race, too, joining not only Warren but Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who announced her campaign on January 21, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who announced on January 11, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who announced the formation of her committee on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on January 15. In a nation in which, even despite the historic results of the 2018 midterm election, women still severely lag behind men in political representation, the fact that five women are running for president in a single party is inspiring. But even before the media gave these women’s political visions a chance, it has largely narrowed in on evaluating whether these women possess a single quality — one that they seem to care about only when it comes to female candidates: their likability.
It wasn’t long before these candidates were interrogated for their likability by the media. At a press conference held in Gillibrand’s hometown of Troy, New York, the day after her announcement, one reporter noted, “I think a lot of people see you as pretty likable, a nice person,” before asking, ”How much of a selling point [is that likability]?” A January article for U.S. News & World Report quoted Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post as calling Harris “winning the early upper hand in the likability contest” and attributing that likability to “a relaxed disposition that presents someone who doesn’t take herself too seriously and genuinely appears to be having a good time.” While both of these evaluations might be seen as reflecting positively on these candidates, they ultimately still reinforce a scale of likability that cautions female candidates to tread the waters of politics with much care, making sure not to overstep outside of the femininity.
But, of course, not all candidates are winning the battle for likability. As Politico tweeted, “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?” The article to which the tweet links compares and contrasts Warren to the “ghosts of Hillary.” Klobuchar has been having trouble finding someone to run her presidential campaign because of the circulating rumors that she is a hostile boss — something that may not even ring as relevant in terms of being a successful president. The scrutiny she has been facing is surely one that women in power face more than men — Stanford Business School professor Bob Sutton presses that “Women pay a larger price and have to walk the line of being nice and being competent and tough...I wonder if a man acted that way, would he get such severe response, even reputationally.”
These candidates are hardly the first women in politics to be judged on this gendered scale. In the fall of 2017, Hillary Clinton told NBC’s Today that when she was secretary of state, she came out of the job in 2013 with “I think a 69 percent approval rating,” which were the highest approval ratings of her political career. But this rating dwindled as she began to run her 2016 campaign. “When a woman walks into the arena and says, ‘I’m going for this myself,’ it really does have a dramatic effect on how people perceive.” She was most liked when she was aiding a man (President Obama) and occupying an inferior rank to him. But as she stepped into the “arena” for herself and ran for president, she was disliked, with a 36 percent approval rating.
More intriguing than a woman’s ideas about policies or positions on ethics to many people is the question: Is she pleasing? But while these women are all Democrats, their policy priorities vary and should all be taken seriously. Gillibrand, who succeeded Hillary Clinton in her role as Democratic senator from the state of New York in 2010, made it clear she will run on a family-friendly platform. “I’m going to run for president of the United States because, as a young mom, I’m going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own,” Senator Gillibrand told Colbert when announcing her campaign, before adding that health care, education, and income inequality ranked among her other top areas of focus. Harris, a former prosecutor, told Good Morning America, “I love my country, and this is a moment in time that I feel a sense of responsibility to fight for the best of who we are.” She intends to run on a platform that pares down middle-class taxes, strengthens universal Medicare, and provides justice for immigrants and rent payers. Warren is also running on a platform that prioritizes the middle class because, as she says in her presidential bid video, it is “under attack” by unregulated corporations.
Of course, likability is a tricky thing for all professional women, not just women in politics. Studies have shown that, thanks to a culture of ingrained sexism, a woman’s success negatively correlates with her likability. As Marianne Cooper, lead researcher for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, wrote in the Harvard Business Review, “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.”
Because women are stereotypically characterized as warm, nurturing, and ultimately gratefully subservient, women in power break their tacit pact with society to be giving and servile. This disruption is interpreted by those who still adhere to this pact as unlikability, especially because women are supposed to ultimately perform the aforementioned emotional labor to please others. Only women who attempt to rise to power while doing so apologetically, as if to acknowledge that breaking this social pact is wrong, are accepted.
The pressure to be likable has the very real potential to harm all women, but especially female political candidates. As Alexis Grenell of The Daily Beast points out, Gillibrand (and other female candidates) could be afraid to be honest about past choices that are potentially contradictory to the values of her campaign because of “the likability trap that uniquely penalizes women in power.” But, Grenell continues, “hiding behind a defense that gaslights her opponents creates a moral universe populated only by heroes and villains, when Gillibrand is neither.”
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