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I spent much of my time during 2016 speaking with the media, women’s groups and bookstore audiences about how the Hillary Clinton “likability” issue that we had been obsessing over since her 2008 campaign was our problem, not hers. In my book, Love Her, Love Her Not: The Hillary Paradox, I, along with 25 other women writers of diverse backgrounds, explored why we had so many different issues about whether we could elect Hillary Clinton as the first woman president of the United States, and why those concerns — which were not related to her experience or political views — might keep us from voting for her even if we believed she was the more qualified candidate.
As I talked with various audiences, many people were skeptical and couldn’t be swayed that this conundrum of likabilty wasn’t just a “Hillary thing.”
Many people protested that HRC just had too much “baggage” — the Whitewater “scandal”, her imperfect marriage, her tea & cookies gaffe from her husband’s first presidential campaign, and her ambition, among other things. Their inability to like her and see her in the White House certainly wouldn’t apply to women in the future, they said. Innumerable women, including some of my book’s contributors, came to the conclusion that they could not vote for Clinton in 2016 because of the decisions she’d made about staying in her marriage.
Interviewers with media outlets around the world refused to believe my take that the likability issue would be one that all women presidential candidates in the near future would have to battle, as well as a bigger problem —one of perfection. Even pro-Hillary Facebook groups in 2016 faced questioning — if their support was being expressed privately in closed groups, did that mean they were also concerned about her “likability”?
Fast forward to 2019, when we now have several highly qualified women presidential contenders for 2020 — U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California. Congresswan Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is still noodling with the idea of jumping into the race, but observers feel that’s likely. Maybe one of the few women governors will jump in at some point? Could there even be a Republican woman who would dip her toe in this pool?
Just as I predicted, despite all those people who told me in 2016 that I was crazy to think that future women presidential hopefuls would face the same likability scrutiny as Hillary Clinton, each and every one of these women candidates is being judged now on the “likability” scale, at least by the media.
Kirsten Gillibrand had to field the likability question on the first day of her presidential campaign, after having served as a U.S. Senator for close to a decade (and as a congresswoman before that), without that question rearing its ugly head. Elizabeth Warren is too “moralizing” to be likable. Some say they’ve never heard of Kamala Harris being called unlikable, but shortly after she announced her presidential bid, she was attacked for long ago decisions in her personal love life that some consider not very likable, which could turn women voters against her just as happened with Hillary Clinton.
Research has shown this is all true — that to be elected to certain politcal offices, a woman candidate must be liked by voters, while a man doesn’t have to be. (Exhibit 1 — Donald Trump). But why? Some say it’s simple — it’s a matter of entrenched sexism and gender roles in our society. Or that every candidate must be liked in some way, regardless of gender (clearly ignoring Exhibit 1). Many male journalists claim the question of a candidate’s likability has nothing to do with sexism or misogyny because don’t we have to like all candidates we vote for? (Again, Exhibit 1).
So, as the subject of likability has reared its ugly head yet again when it comes to women who dare to strive for the most powerful position in the world, it’s time to take a deeper dive into this conundrum. It involves so much more than the question of whether we do or don’t “like” a person. As I wrote in my essay “I Don’t Need Hillary Clinton to Be Perfect”, voters — especially women voters — not only needed to connect with Hillary Clinton on some personal level in order to cast a vote for her, but there was also an underlying expectation that she had to be like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.
There has been some great research done on the question of likability, especially by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. But as we move into the 2020 presidential race, it’s time to look further into our collective problem with this idea. We need to dissect it, pull it apart, put it back together again and get to the bottom of how we’ve all been socialized since childhood when it comes to what we want in leaders and whether a woman presidential candidate can only succeed if she is a perfect, nice “likable” girl.
Why are the ideas of likability and perfection so important to some voters and not others? African American women cast their ballots overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, clearly not seeing a need to check the likability box in the way that white women voters did. What other types of women leaders are judged on the likability spectrum and why? Will our daughters and granddaughters face this same problem generations from now? Do we find women candidates acceptable until they decide top run for the biggest electoral prize in America? Can we flip this thing on its head in our current age of badass women and boss girls?
Ultimately, what will it take for us be done with the idea of a woman presidential candidate needing to be all things to all voters in a way we don’t expect of male candidates? If we don’t take the time to answer these questions, will we ever be able to elect a woman to be president?