When Will Ambition Stop Being a Four-Letter Word for Women in Politics?

Over the past year, we’ve seen a rise in opinion pieces, media coverage, and discussion addressing the misogyny of the right. But what about the subtle misogyny everywhere else?

Last week, I read a brilliant (albeit sobering) piece by Jill Filipovic for Cosmopolitan. In it, Filipovic made the case that a woman in power — in this case, Senator Elizabeth Warren — is an asset to her party until men no longer feel comfortable with her power. I’ve been helping elect women to public office for 20 years, and I can tell you I’ve seen this all before. Women are consistently criticized for working hard to reach higher and achieve their professional goals, while men are rewarded for doing the same. For women, ambition is still a four-letter word.

I addressed this very double standard in the last election cycle. And today, the story is the same. We’ve seen this movie before. The message to women who want to take their place as leaders has been “You can sit here, but don’t expect to be at the head of the table. If you are a woman who does exactly the same things a man in your position would do, you are unfairly seen as overly ambitious, self-serving, a liability.”

Case in point: look at the media coverage around Senator Warren’s response to the recent cabinet confirmation hearings. Her vote of approval for Ben Carson’s role as Housing and Urban Development Secretary drew “liberal ire” and “backlash”, with Senator Warren having to publicly address the opposition to her decision in a detailed Facebook post. Her progressive male counterpart — Senator Bernie Sanders — took a similar vote of approval for Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, but a quick news search revealed virtually no pushback from the progressive community or anywhere else.

And remember how Senator Warren was silenced by Senator Mitch McConnell for reading Coretta Scott King’s letter criticizing Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions? Senator McConnell’s dismissal of her made #ShePersisted a feminist rallying cry. Yet Senator Warren still met with criticism and was called “too shrill” and “too strident.”

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it isn’t new. Back in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enjoyed sky-high approval ratings while serving in the Obama Administration, at one point polling even higher than President Obama and Vice-President Biden. A few years later, when her ambitions became more clear and she announced her second run for the presidency, her approval ratings dropped dramatically. The conversations about her likeability and viability drowned out the fact that she was the most qualified candidate in history. Why? Despite Secretary Clinton’s overwhelming qualifications, voters have complicated feelings about a woman embracing her own ambition.

Here’s the silver lining: Eight out of ten Americans say they are ready to see their first female president, and the excitement around women running for office has reached a fever pitch. In order to elect more women to office — and eventually the Oval Office — we need to value their ambition, embrace it, and encourage it.

The best way to change the status quo is to challenge it. So let’s get to work, and keep on #persisting!