Running as a Woman in the All-Boys Race of Presidential Politics

*The following is a critical feminist analysis of the challenges women face when running for president in the United States — not an endorsement of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election*

Our 43 American presidents have been Republicans, Democrats, Christians and agnostics. We’ve had establishment presidents, a former actor president and most recently, a Black president. But not once, in the 239 years that this nation has existed, has a woman been president. Women have run for President and Vice President… Among them, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 as Walter Mondale’s VP, Sarah Palin in 2008 as John McCain’s running mate, and this election season, Carly Fiorina and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The question is bigger than whether America is ready for a female Commander in Chief. It is rather whether the only remaining female contender in the current race will be able to run a successful campaign and convince voters that she should be the first woman in the Oval Office, despite the challenges that female candidates face running against their male counterparts.

Historically, American politics have consisted primarily of one demographic: white males. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, in 2015 104 women held seats in the United States Congress, comprising 19.4% of the 535 members. American women running for office face lingering stereotypes about a woman’s place in a patriarchal society, often excluding public office roles. Linguistics professor at Georgetown University, Deborah Tannen, describes this challenge saying:

“Our image of a politician, a leader, a manager, anyone in authority, is still at odds with our expectations of a woman. To the extent that a woman is feminine, she’s seen as weak. To the extent that she puts it aside and is forceful, aggressive and decisive, she’s not seen as a good woman.”

These expectations apply more broadly to American women in positions of power, beyond the political realm as well. Gloria Steinem said:

“There is still no ‘right’ way to be a powerful woman — and almost no wrong way to be a powerful man — so the standard for likability in powerful men is incredibly low, and the one for women is incredibly high. It’s impossible to be powerful in a ‘feminine’ role that no man could occupy — for example, Oprah.”

In this piece, I will discuss what I see as the three biggest challenges that women face when they run for president and how, if used correctly, those very challenges can be used as powerful convincing tactics in a campaign narrative. They are the dichotomy of female likability and toughness, the use of the so-called “gender card” and society’s unavoidable fixation on female sexuality and personal relationships.

One of the biggest challenges that a woman running for President of the United States faces is being “likable” to voters while also convincing them that she is tough. Male candidates are also expected to have a likable, guy-next-door quality on the campaign trail — a task that expert campaigners like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama excelled at. However, a male candidate’s likability and toughness are mutually exclusive. Conversely, these two characteristics seem to be quite correlated for voters when it comes to female candidates. This gendered double-standard was made evident in Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, during which Clinton was scrutinized by the media for her so-called “likability issue.” It came to a head at a debate in New Hampshire where she was asked what she’d tell voters who were “hesitating on the likability issue.” To this, Clinton responded: “Well that hurts my feelings, but I’ll try to go on.” In a patriarchal society like our own, a woman is expected to be inherently warm, compassionate and concerned primarily with social issues. For a multi-faceted, powerful woman like Hillary Clinton and many professional American women, getting to where they are took a whole lot more than being “likable.” But the reality is that behind the spotlight in the race to the White House, it does make an impression on voters. A candidate who lacks charisma suffers, especially when that candidate is a woman. The Des Moines Register released a poll in 2007 showing that Hillary Clinton was seen as more “ego-driven” and “negative” than any of the other contenders. The same survey also showed that Iowan voters thought she was less likable than her democratic opponents, Barack Obama and John Edwards. Clinton came in third in the Iowa caucuses that year with 29 percent behind both Obama and Edwards. For male candidates, likability on the campaign trail tends to be simple: you either have it or you don’t. (An undisputed example of a candidate who doesn’t is Jeb Bush, whose failed campaign is often attributed to his lack of likability as a campaigner in comparison to his brother and father).

Nevertheless, for female candidates likability comes at a price, and “too much” of it can be detrimental as well. AP National writer Jocelyn Noveck wrote in 2008:

“Men could appear likable with no threat to their image of toughness and ability to lead. In other words, they could laugh, be empathetic, hug, kiss, and yes, even cry, without seeming less capable of having their finger on the nuclear button.”

This brings me to another major obstacle that female candidates face when creating their candidacy narrative and campaigning: How to be strong enough to make tough Commander in Chief decisions and be likable and accessible to regular Americans at the same time. Society’s traditional perception of the American woman as a passive homemaker is certainly not a fit when choosing who would be best at negotiating nuclear deals or leading the U.S. Military in the battle against ISIS. Yet, voters still look for and expect this stereotypical figure in female candidates. Even someone like Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with her extensive foreign policy resume, has been criticized by Americans and her opponents for lacking toughness and being unable to put aside her presumed feminine sensitivity when faced with difficult decisions. In 2008, she famously shared an emotional moment with a New Hampshire voter on the eve of the state’s primary. Many media outlets attributed her victory in the polls the next day to this likable moment from the “icy control queen.” However, Edwards reacted to the moment by saying, “I think what we need in a Commander in Chief is strength and resolve.”

Hillary Clinton embodies one of patriarchal America’s biggest fears: a powerful, strong woman politician who is capable, arguably more so than most American men, of making difficult and sometimes ugly decisions for the American people. This reality coupled with Clinton’s lack of organic charm has led Americans to label her as “cold.” This is not surprising given that patriarchal society likes to pigeonhole women into extremes — pretty or ugly, virgin or whore, infectiously friendly or cold hearted b*tch. To the public, Hillary Clinton naturally falls on the cold end, for she’s too tough, too bland and too scary next to the ideally warm, inviting and unthreatening American Woman. But her husband and former president, Bill Clinton, begs to differ. In the 2008 Iowa campaign he passionately stated, “I’m sick and tired of reading about what a polarizing figure she is. I have known her almost as long as you have and I have never known anybody who actually knew her who didn’t like her, admire her, respect her and follow her wherever.” However, Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, reveals that American voters aren’t the only apprehensive ones when it comes to Hillary Clinton’s seemingly cold, hard nature. One member of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s inner circle described it as ‘stages of Hillary’ saying, “You know, you first dread the prospect of working with her, then you sort of begrudgingly begin to respect her, then you outright respect her and her incredible work ethic. You know, she’s inexhaustible, she’s tough-minded, and then you come to actually start to like her,” (Allen, Parnes 111). Could it be, then, that a woman candidate’s unforgiving, hard working nature — often misconstrued as coldness — could actually be an asset when running for president?

Yes. Many voters — especially female voters — identify with and are empowered by female leaders who break polarizing stereotypes in being simultaneously tough and likable. These Americans like female leaders because they tend to be unapologetically tough. “Hillary’s toughness and her femininity weren’t mutually exclusive; they were bound together. Voters, particularly women, identified with her precisely because she was a woman with an iron spine,” (Allen, Parnes 29). Hillary Clinton’s sense of power, while it may be scary to Americans who aren’t ready to see power in heels, is new and exciting to others and something that “a lot of people gravitate towards,” (Allen, Parnes 253). In the 2016 race, Hillary’s campaign has succeeded in marrying her, what some would call, “contradictions” as a fun-loving family woman (for those who buy it at least) AND political badass. Voters are well rounded and live in contradictions too. They embody multiple roles and identities within their homes and communities. To match this, Hillary is running the current race as a champion for minorities who, like her, aren’t just one thing or another. Her message appeals to voters who embody intersectional identities; they’re the queer businesswoman, the African American single mother and entrepreneur and the first generation Latina college student.

However, Hillary did not run as a woman in 2008. She was the establishment candidate running against a guy whose whole existence screamed a 6-letter-word that voters love to fantasize about: change. But her campaign failed to make the change that she’d bring to the White House as the first woman president part of her campaign narrative. This move was, among other reasons, an attempt to avoid playing the dreaded “gender card”. Ellen Goodman describes the gender card in the Daily Herald as:

“A woman can be accused of taking unfair tactical advantage of her disadvantage. A woman moving into the power structure is expected to behave as if it’s a fair and level playing field. Any woman who cries discrimination is likely to be decried as a whiner.”

Hillary was accused of playing the gender card during a speech at her alma mater, Wellesley College, in 2007. She said, “This all-women’s college prepared me to compete in the all-boys club of presidential politics,” and later in New Hampshire added, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. I’m very much at home in the kitchen,” mocking and challenging the stereotype of the domestic female homemaker. A media-driven frenzy ensued after both comments, accusing her of playing the gender card, the victim card and of trying to “have it both ways.” Meanwhile, male candidates have consistently appealed to masculinity throughout their presidential campaigns. Ronald Reagan challenged Walter Mondale to arm-wrestle, George Bush said he’d “kicked a little a — ” in his debate with Geraldine Ferraro and Marco Rubio alluded to the small size of Donald Trump’s penis. It wasn’t until the end of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008, though, that the defeated candidate proudly played the “gender card” and seemed to finally fully own being a woman. In her concession speech, she explicitly said that when she’d been asked on the campaign trail about what it meant to be a woman running for president, she’d exclude her gender altogether and assert that she was running because she thought she’d be the best president, period. But this time she added:

“I am a woman, and like millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious, and I want to build an America that respects and embraces the potential of every last one of us.”

She also talked about the glass ceiling in this final speech, assuring her supporters that although they weren’t able to shatter it in ‘08, “it’s got about eighteen million cracks in it. And the light shining through like never before, filling us all with hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.”

Clinton has indeed been more successful this time around, using the so-called gender card as a powerful tactic in her campaign by making her womanhood a focal point in her narrative. Her history fighting for women’s rights from the beginnings of her career has been emphasized and her campaign has pushed to reach minority women voters, especially in the African American and Latina communities, by adopting language like “basta!” and “black lives matter” and forming an alliance with the mothers of police brutality victims. Just this week, her campaign released an ad where influential black actresses Viola Davis and Kerry Washington, among others, endorse Hillary Clinton by comparing themselves and their TV characters to her as “brilliant, complex” women who fight for justice and give voices “to the voiceless.” This is a prime example of how a female candidate can use her gender or the G-card in her favor… Hillary’s only mistake was not having done it sooner. In fact, it’s perhaps what cost her the 2008 nomination.

The third and final challenge that I want to address in this piece is the American media’s fixation on female sexuality and a woman’s sexual or romantic decisions, a fixation that takes away from issues of higher relevance when choosing between candidates. To use Hillary Clinton as an example again, her marriage has been one of particularly high public interest or concern given the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998. Hillary’s decision to stay with Bill after he cheated and publicly denied it, was controversially questioned, criticized and applauded back then and still today as she runs for office herself. Hillary has also been criticized for straying from society’s image of the devoted wife for pursuing her own political career post her FLOTUS gig. Biographies have described Bill and Hillary’s marriage as a pact rooted in political ambition, which Bill has refuted in the past, pointing to when she moved to Arkansas to marry him, “a defeated candidate for Congress with a $26,000 salary and a $42,000 campaign debt.” Meanwhile, nobody seems to care about GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s two failed marriages and the fact that his first ex-wife accused him of raping her in 1989. The sexual judgment pinned on the female presidential candidate has even reached her fashion choices. Twitter went wild after she wore a bright yellow pantsuit to a debate hosted by PBS in February, comparing her to Colonel Mustard’s wife and the Gorton’s fish sticks man. The public has never cared this much about a candidate’s fashion choices — except maybe when Al Gore shifted to earth tones in 2000. The New York Times’ Vanessa Friedman believes there’s a way for Clinton to monopolize on the public’s obsession with her attire. In January, the fashion columnist wrote in a post that a female candidate like Hillary should underscore rather than complain, deny, or ignore fashion. “People are interested in clothes. So what?” Friedman wrote. “They want to talk about them? Fine, let’s talk. If that’s the way to grab attention and engage — if that’s an entry point to a broader conversation and deeper connection — it’s at least as valid as discussions about, say, what sub sandwich is your favorite. And that is a lesson worth learning, one I would pass on to my daughters. It is one I wish female politicians — and I hope there will be more and more of them — would learn (male, too, for that matter).”

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