For those who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, it was obvious that sexism played a role in how her candidacy was received. Pundits complained about her facial expressions, her “shrill” tone and her alleged penchant for “shouting”— something that Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders also did plenty of, with much less scrutiny.
“Smile. You just had a big night,” Joe Scarborough tweeted condescendingly to Clinton at the end of a major primary night in March. Much of the media cast her as unlikable, inauthentic and untrustworthy. Often, these assessments came down to people’s gut feelings rather than tangible concerns about her experience or policies.
What was especially frustrating to Clinton supporters, however, was that her position as the one and only woman in the race made this sexism harder to call out — because sexist criticism of Clinton could easily be ascribed to her flaws as an individual, without taking into account the gender biases that influence public perception.
“I think the challenge with having only one ... is that it is easy to discount sexism in coverage, sexism from voters, sexism in the ways we view the candidates, to chalk that up to, well, that’s Hillary,” Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for EMILY’s List and former deputy communications director for the Clinton campaign, told HuffPost. “It’s ‘there’s something about her I just don’t like.’ It’s the ‘I would support a woman, just not this one.’”
“Across the country, people of every political persuasion — men, women, millennials, baby boomers — told me they were eager for a woman president, just not this woman,” Rolling Stone reporter Janet Reitman wrote the September before the election. And actress Susan Sarandon, who had backed Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primary, told the BBC that she just couldn’t bring herself to vote for Clinton, because she “want[ed] the right woman.”
Even Trump tapped into the refrain that it wasn’t about women in general, just this woman. In fact, he cherished women! No one respected women more than him! “I want to see a woman become president, but it can’t be her. She’s a disaster. She’s a disaster,” Trump told a crowd about Clinton in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in July 2016.
If anything, what the field needed was more women, Rebecca Traister suggested in The New Republic back in 2014, lamenting the fact that several highly qualified women were apparently clearing the lane for Clinton’s bid. “Warren, Gillibrand, and Klobuchar would dramatically improve the tenor and content of political discourse on the left” by running against Clinton, she argued, “because ... women challenging each other, in presidential and other races ... alleviates the pressure of only-ness.”
Fast-forward to 2019, and two of the women Traister identified, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), have launched serious presidential campaigns, along with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is also reportedly mulling over a bid.
These women span the ideological spectrum of the Democratic Party — and just maybe in 2020, the sheer number of them out on the campaign trail and on the debate stage, expressing a variety of political views, even arguing with each other while displaying a variety of demeanors, will force voters to look at women politicians as individual candidates, rather than as avatars for 52 percent of the population.
“Just having one, that one person bears all the representational weight,” Traister said when Stephen Colbert recently asked if it was a good thing to have several women in the running for the Democratic nomination. “And when you’re talking about massive populations that have been left out of these structures, that’s too much pressure for one candidate to bear.”
“Maybe in 2020, the sheer number of women out on the campaign trail and on the debate stage, expressing a variety of political views, even arguing with each other while displaying a variety of demeanors, will force voters to look at women politicians as individual candidates, rather than as avatars for 52 percent of the population.”
A vigorous battle between multiple Democratic women candidates might also allow the country to change its collective vision of what “presidential” looks like. When then-Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.) explored a presidential run 1987, she kept running into a particular line of criticism. People felt she was qualified and personable and highly knowledgeable, but she just didn’t have that …presidential vibe.
“I used to have people say to me, ‘I like everything about you but you don’t sound like the others, you don’t look like the others,’” Schroeder recently told HuffPost. “‘The problem is, you don’t look presidential.’”
There’s also the problem that when women seek the highest political offices, they are portrayed as too ambitious, too ruthless, less likable. Clinton, for example, was always most popular when she was settled into a role (like when she was a New York senator or secretary of state) or while assisting a more powerful man in some capacity (like when she was first lady... or secretary of state). When she left Barack Obama’s Cabinet in 2013, she was the most popular politician in the country, with an approval rating of 69 percent. But when she dared to ask for more power, her approval ratings plummeted. In February 2016, in the midst of her run for president, her approval rating hovered just above 40 percent.
When more than one woman steps up and asks for power, it becomes harder to dismiss sexist critiques of and reactions to that ambition. As the first woman to officially announce her candidacy, Warren’s likability was quickly called into question. (Ironically, during the 2016 election, many had declared that Warren would be the natural antidote to Clinton’s unlikability.) “I’ll Say It. Elizabeth Warren Isn’t Likeable,” declared Matt Lewis in The Daily Beast. “How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?” asked Politico. “Is Elizabeth Warren Actually ‘Unlikeable’”? echoed Vanity Fair.
But now that there are at least four women in the race, the knee-jerk critiques seem to have ― at least temporarily ― slowed. The media promptly denounced a (favorable) comment about Gillibrand’s likability at her first post-announcement press event. And Harris’ announcement wasn’t followed in the press by any caveats about her ambition or likability. (Progress!)
It remains to be seen how gender will play out in the Democratic primary. There is still a fear among women who work in the political sphere that the media may try to frame healthy debate between the female candidates as some sort of “cat fight.” And Reynolds told HuffPost that EMILY’s List has already received questions about whether the women running will simply cannibalize each other’s votes.
If a woman does end up facing off against Trump in the general election, there is certainly still a chance that sexism could actively hurt her chances at defeating him. After all, his brazen toxic masculinity is undoubtedly a part of his appeal to his base. But these difficult-to-navigate transitional moments in history are a necessary part of increasing representation in the long run. We will not create a wider vision of what a president could look like and who should be allowed to desire that role until more individuals who fall outside of that mold step up and run.
“We [at EMILY’s List] are firm believers [that] every woman [who] runs makes it easier for the next woman,” said Reynolds, “in part because it changes the way we look at candidates.”
And because it changes what “candidate” looks like.