Why the sexist ‘likability test' could haunt female candidates in 2020

Guardian Web |

It wasn’t Donald Trump, it wasn’t Lindsey Graham, it wasn’t any of the ageing white men who dominate the Republican party. It was, in fact, Barack Obama who in 2008 framed an unfortunate test for female politicians when he told his rival Hillary Clinton: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”

When Clinton ran for the presidency again in 2016, more than one headline referred to her “likability problem”, and when Senator Elizabeth Warren in effect launched her own campaign this week, it did not take long for the old trope to rear its head. “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton – written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?” asked a tweet from the Politico website.

Warren had a quick riposte, tweeting a video of herself on a train on Wednesday with the comment : “I hear women candidates are most likable in the quiet car!”

The exchange illustrated how “likability” appears to still be a women-only test. Misogyny may have been a crucial factor in Clinton’s narrow defeat by Trump, a man caught on video bragging about groping women. It could return with a vengeance in the 2020 election with Senators Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar potentially bidding to smash the final glass ceiling.

Of course voter sexism and outright misogyny still exist

Shilpa Phadke

Shilpa Phadke, the vice-president of the women’s initiative at the Center for American Progress thinktank in Washington, said: “Of course voter sexism and outright misogyny still exist. There’s a constant focus for women on what they’re wearing, what they look like and the tone of their voice. It’s almost as if they’re not only running for president but also running for Miss America.

“The research shows women have to find a sweet spot so they are ‘warm enough’. They’re expected to conform to certain positive stereotypes and avoid certain negative stereotypes. This double standard doesn’t just exist in politics: if the presidency is gendered, so is business, so is the media, so is Hollywood. What’s happening with Elizabeth Warren is no different from what is faced by working women every day.”

Phadke pointed, however, to surveys that show a strong majority of Americans say they are ready to elect a female president, as well as to Clinton’s victory by nearly 3m ballots in the popular vote.

Male candidates face intense scrutiny on many counts but “likability” is seldom part of the lexicon. “I have never been asked by anyone personally or professionally whether a male candidate is likable or not,” said Bob Bland, the co-president of Women’s March.

It’s notable, she adds, that “no one was asking that question when Elizabeth Warren was just a senator. Nobody was asking that question when Hillary Clinton was just secretary of state … So this is something that only happens to women when they ask for more power, when they say, ‘You know what? I am qualified for this position and I’m going to go for it.’ There is an invisible line in our society, and particularly in American politics, where if women ask for ‘too much’ they get punished for it and the way that is done is they are labelled unlikable.

“Instead of asking whether women are likable enough to win, why don’t we ask all of the questions that we would ask any male candidate?”

‘There’s a double standard’

Writing on the GQ website, Luke Darby argues: “Obama was ‘cool’ if you liked him, or aloof and professorial if not. Bernie Sanders has good favorables. Mitt Romney is heading to the Senate now despite being a crossbreed of a career executive and a Brooks Brothers mannequin. But Warren, like Clinton before her, has to have the ability to be liked.”

Neil Sroka, the communications director of the progressive group Democracy for America, notes that in 2016 Sanders had a “gruff demeanor” but pulled off a “curmudgeonly grandfather” act that proved popular. “That wouldn’t work for a female candidate and that speaks to sexism. There is a double standard.”

Women are held to different standards from men when it comes to likability, according to Chloe Safier, a gender and women’s rights consultant. “The feminine version of likability does not allow for much ambition, intelligence or power-seeking,” she said.

Safier was a graduate student at Harvard when Warren was teaching at its law school. “In my memory, she was eminently likable,” she continued. “She’s brilliant, warm and funny in an irreverent way. The discussion around a woman presidential candidate’s ‘likability’ is an updated, #MeToo-era adaptation of discussing a woman’s looks or clothes. It’s a thinly veiled attempt at tearing someone down because they don’t conform to rigid, limiting standards of gender-specific behaviour.”

Trump fires off insults like a scattergun but seems to especially relish attacks on women and people of colour. He has taunted Warren for her claim of Native American ancestry by branding her “Pocahontas”. In October, Warren released a DNA test intended to support the claims, but it seemed to generate more controversy.

Safier warned: “I think Trump will be vicious to any opposing candidate in 2020, but if the opposing candidate is a woman, I think he will be vicious in a particularly gendered way. He will pick apart a woman candidate’s looks, demeanour and ‘likability’, because he knows that will elicit a reaction.

“And the press will pick up on that reaction, generating news cycles and debates about those things and whether he had a right to say them. We’ll be talking about that, instead of Warren’s policies and agenda. It’s a distraction circus, and one that Trump will use to his benefit.”

If the candidate is a woman, I think Trump will be vicious in a gendered way

Chloe Safier

Warren, 69, vowing to take on wealthy elites and Washington corruption, has hit the ground running after announcing on New Year’s Eve that she was launching a presidential exploratory committee. She has made some key political hires in Iowa, the leadoff caucus state, and will travel there on Friday.

Her early moves coincide with Thursday’s formation of a new House of Representatives boasting a record 102 women. Nancy Pelosi was elected speaker for the second time, but only after a firestorm of Republican attack ads during the midterm elections – a measure of how she is singled out for vitriol in a way that the Democrats’ Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, is not.

Bonnie Morris, a women’s history professor and author of 16 books including The Feminist Revolution, said: “Quite a few belligerent and unattractive men have been accepted as global leaders. It seems it’s fine when men are brusque and domineering. Women are cast in the home as a diplomat or a hostess: you’re expected to be a conduit between personalities and not have one that sticks out yourself.”

Morris does “not expect anything positive” from Trump in the 2020 election campaign. “But the media has an opportunity to create a completely different format that ignores insulting tweets from the White House and sets a higher tone.”

Sroka agreed that, as in the midterms, the president was likely to unleash a tide of misogyny, racism and xenophobia. He said: “The idea of a woman beating him is perhaps one of the most frightening things Trump can imagine, save for attending the inauguration in a prison jumpsuit.”

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