I will never forget the dread I felt as the results came in from the 2016 election. Sitting next to my daughter, like many Americans at the time, I fully believed we were about to share a long-awaited moment: the election of our first female president. I was proud to have voted in an election that would finally achieve one of the most important and most visible milestones of female equality. It would create a future in which women were taken seriously and not an afterthought, unlike the world in which I grew up. My daughter would have the confidence and respect that was often denied to the women of my generation (who had it far better than women of prior generations).
Watching the electoral college results come in one after another, not only not for the woman, but for the man whose record of misogyny and sexual assault was well established, was a gut punch, over and over. I felt physically sick.
Here we go again.
There are currently 5 women candidates in the running for the 2020 presidential election, each with impressive qualifications on par (or better in some cases) with their male peers. There are many women leaders of top nations, worldwide, including Angela Merkel, the highly regarded German chancellor for the last 13 years, who leads the European Union. New Zealand’s Prime Minister has even given birth while in office! Is the US so different from these other developed, world-leading nations? Yes and no.
As I used to explain to my (die-hard conservative) former business colleague, in US politics, we have a right and a left. Then there’s the rest of the world, over here, to the left of our left. I know she liked that simplistic explanation, because she quoted it often. However, she wasn’t happy about it, whereas I had lived and traveled extensively abroad and was more impressed than she was by the socialism-lite approach to democracy.
But conservatives, generally speaking, are pretty harsh on women candidates while giving men a pass on misogynist behaviors. Despite her status as a high-ranking female executive, she also had some religious-based prejudices about women in leadership. She was an Evangelical and felt that women preachers just “didn’t work.” She enthusiastically supported Trump in 2016 when he became the nominee.
A recent debate between Susan Madrak and Kathleen Grier revealed some of the key arguments why the country is or is not ready to elect a woman to the highest office.
“Sexism is sneaky, usually tolerated, and mostly unexamined.” Susan Madrak
Here are some statements identified as masked sexism:
“I’d gladly vote for a woman, just not this one!” This one is particularly insidious because there’s always some theoretical woman who is acceptable, but who is not in fact running.
“Hillary Clinton was just too deeply flawed to win.” (While ignoring the contrast to Trump’s far deeper flaws).
“She’s just not likable” or its near cousin “I find her cold.”
“She’s too shrill!” (The narrow band of acceptable tone available to women is well documented, and almost impossible to maintain as a woman).
These are arguments I know very well as a former high level business executive. I was coached once to show vulnerability, even though I didn’t know what that meant and nobody could explain it in a business context. “Men just like to think you have weaknesses. They find you intimidating.” Really? So weaknesses won’t be used against me? I’ll believe that when I see it. Also, I have never in my decades of experience heard of a man being criticized for being intimidating. Others were always told they just needed to be well prepared for a rigorous discussion.
While many like to consider the US the “best” country in the world, it ranks 51st when it comes to gender parity, lagging behind most of Europe, Canada, Australia, several African nations and former Soviet states, and even Mexico beats us (just barely). Four elements were evaluated in this ranking: Economic Participation & Opportunity (our best ranking–19th), Educational Attainment (ranked 46th), Health and Survival (ranked 71st), and dead last, Political Empowerment (ranked 98th). We’ve still got a long way to go, and it’s no wonder women’s health and reproductive rights are under siege with so little female representation in the legislature. Several of our male legislators don’t seem to even understand how women’s bodies work (e.g. “you can’t get pregnant from rape”) and don’t know that birth control pills are very commonly prescribed for non-reproductive reasons.
We have a consistent track record of choosing misogynists for office, and while neither party is immune, the right seems to have more misogynists to choose from.
“There was such a chasm between Hillary’s perceived flaws and Trump’s utter unsuitability for the office of President that I have to wonder what could breach that kind of image abyss—and what created it. That voters happily selected the pussy-grabber, the open sexist and racist, convinces me there’s something powerful working in the Jungian shadows.” Susan Madrak
Misogyny is just one way the right stirs up controversy against their political opponents. Whataboutism doesn’t work in this particular scenario because voters on the left don’t respond as well to open misogyny. Attacks on the First Lady (if her POTUS husband is a Dem) have been fair game:
- Claiming Hillary was a lesbian who had her lover Vince Foster offed
- Making racist disparaging comments about Michelle Obama’s appearance
- Claiming Elizabeth Warren had an affair with a 24 year old Marine
Regardless this history of disparaging women in the political limelight, at some point, the US is bound to catch up to other developed nations in electing a woman to the highest office, right? Please, please say I’m right.
The best evidence cited is that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million votes in 2016. That’s all good and well, but given the electoral college, Dems could win the popular by up to 5 million votes in 2020 and still lose the election. The popular vote is not enough in the US. You also have to win in the flyover states. Republicans have been very successful at causing a fear of cultural loss among these voters, and in many cases, progressive platforms aren’t as beneficial to them as they are to urban and suburban voters.
From Kathleen Geier’s rebuttal to Susan Madrak:
“Clinton actually did pretty well, given what she was up against. That said, she was also, as many have pointed out already, a weak candidate. Like Al Gore and John Kerry, she lacked charisma and had been in politics for approximately 1,000 years, which tends to create undesirable baggage. . . And then there’s Clinton’s campaign, which frankly stunk on ice. To her credit, Clinton did support a host of progressive policies. But because she never made them central to her messaging, many voters remained unaware of them. Ultimately, Clinton failed to perform that most basic task of telling voters how she was going to make their lives better.” Kathleen Geier
She notes that sexism and misogyny, while they were factors that hobbled Clinton, could have been defused by a stronger candidate with less baggage.
“Now let’s be real: Clinton faced a tsunami of sexism. Some of the misogyny came from the left and from the mainstream media, but the ugliest attacks came from the Republicans and the right. And yes, those attacks were brutal and debilitating. But does anyone doubt that any Democratic presidential candidate would also have faced vicious smears by the right? Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama were also put through the GOP shredder. The contemporary GOP has made it clear that it will use any means necessary to destroy any Democrat. Strong candidates can weather these attempts at character assassination, even when they deploy hateful ideologies and stereotypes. . . A more talented female candidate than Clinton would similarly have been able to, at least partially, defuse the sexism.”
She goes on to decry just how far behind other nations the US lags in female political representation:
“Pakistan, Morocco, and even Saudi Arabia have a higher proportion of women in their national parliaments than we do. Yet according to a study by the World Economic Forum, those nations rank among the countries with the least gender equality in the world.”
Often in these more oppressive countries, women rise to power on the basis of relationships with powerful, politically connected families. I didn’t fail to notice that Hillary Clinton also fit that bill.
She adds that according to the political science literature, voter sexism in the United States is not the likely reason that women are not being elected to political office! Fewer American women are running, and there are many causes:
- Fewer women in professional career tracks that usually link to political roles (e.g. lawyers are only 34% female and still experience serious glass ceiling problems and exit-ramping due to employment policies that make them less likely to put in the long hours and travel required to get ahead in our system). This is a pipeline problem.
- Less parental encouragement
- Less access to mostly male political social groups
- Lower self-confidence in assessing personal qualifications vs. overconfident male candidates
- Social attitudes that discourage women from running
There was a study done with blind auditions for orchestras that demonstrated these points very well. When the auditions were held behind a screen so that the judges couldn’t see who was playing, they hired more women. Why? Because under these conditions, a LOT more women were willing to audition. Given the onslaught of misogyny and personal attacks any woman candidate will face if she runs, it takes a special breed to be willing to put herself and her family through that. Which is just what her political opponents want and why they do it.
Both Susan Madrak and Kathleen Meier caution us against spending too much time wringing our hands over whether a woman can win, simply because that very act itself dampers enthusiasm among potential women candidates. And the biggest predictor of whom someone will vote for is not the sex of the candidate, but the party.
“The concept of electability is deeply troubling because it’s rooted in the belief that only a man can beat another man, when in fact, women across the country have a record of defeating male opponents at every level of government.” Na’ilah Amaru, national trainer for VoteRunLead quoted here
As one Forbes opinion writer put it:
“The only thing standing in the way of running a woman against Trump is our fear that a woman cannot beat Trump. The evidence does not support this, however.” Melanie Fine
What do you think?
- When will we elect our first woman President in the US?
- What is holding us back from more female representation in politics in the US?
- Would you vote for a woman for POTUS? Why or why not?
- Do you think Mormons are less likely to vote for a woman or would they vote for a woman if she ran under their party? Explain your answer.