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Our collective preoccupation with whether a woman presidential candidate must be likable to be electable can be traced directly to our inability to accept one woman in particular — Hillary Clinton.
Of course, we’ve always wanted to like the political candidates we vote for.
Voters liked John F. Kennedy more than Richard Nixon in 1960. Nixon hoped Checkers and his wife’s sensible cloth coat would help with that, but visibly sweating under the hot TV debate lights wiped out any gain Nixon might have made trying to portray himself as an everyman. But did voters really like Nixon more than Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968? That year was complicated, with the assassination of Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run, and the country’s internal conflict over the Vietnam war. Whether voters actually liked “Tricky Dick” didn’t seem to factor into the voting equation.
Jimmy Carter seemed like a nice family man. And there is still much love among political conservatives for Ronald Reagan.
Our judgmental fascination over whether we needed to find a political figure “likable” didn’t surface until Bill Clinton ran for the White House in 1992, and the fixation didn’t have anything to do with him. Bill had charisma by the boatload regardless of what you thought of him personally or politically. But when his wife Hillary appeared front and center on the campaign, being unapologetically the career woman and life partner, voters felt a sudden, unfamiliar shift in the political space-time continuum.
Hillary Clinton was a kind of political spouse no one had seen before. She dared to step out of the traditional helpmate role. She wasn’t a stay at home mom as most other First Ladies had been until that point. Infamously, she wasn’t staying home to bake cookies and have teas. She wasn’t letting her husband take the lead on making the mortgage payments.
Even though she wasn’t the one running for office, reporters and voters focused on the discomfort they were feeling about having this modern woman anywhere near the Oval Office. A woman who dared speak her honest thoughts. A woman who was just as highly educated as her candidate husband. A woman who wasn’t afraid to believe that she and Bill were equal partners in all aspects of their lives, including shared political ambition.
A woman who ultimately wasn’t afraid to admit to her own desire for political power.
When we met Hillary Clinton — with her headbands, shoulder pads and Baby Boom power suits — we discovered that gender would play a major role in how ambitious women would be perceived on the political stage.
That’s when the Hillary likability test was born.
Hillary was a potential First Lady who didn’t know “her place” and we didn’t know what she might do once she moved in at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Other First Ladies faced some issues on that front, though not on the same level; people didn’t always like Betty Ford because she dared to speak her mind on topics like abortion and addiction. People didn’t always care for Nancy Reagan because they thought she was the hand guiding her husband with astrology. But at the end of the day, Americans admired Betty and Nancy and, so many other First Ladies, for staying in the gendered lane of supportive helpmate with no political ambitions of their own.
They weren’t threatening, so no one even though about asking whether they were likable.
Hillary was in a class all her own, because she was the first potential First Lady who had been the ambitious breadwinner who was reluctant to change her last name when she married. She was from a new era. She refused to leave her philandering husband when many women voters proclaimed “WE’D NEVER stay” and “How could she?!” Women voters struggled to identify with Hillary. She was a possible FLOTUS who didn’t fit the mold — a mold that so many women found themselves in they couldn’t fathom trying to break it.
All those things made Hillary unlikable to many because even in the 1990s, women like Hillary were the exception, not the rule. Later, whether a voter wanted to sip a glass of Chardonnay and talk about Hillary’s guilty pleasure TV viewing wasn’t a deal breaker when she ran for the U.S. Senate. We’d seen women senators before, so she wasn’t a trailblazer in that chapter of her life. But when she dared to try to fulfill her dream of becoming the first woman POTUS, our judgmentalism about what’s OK for women reared its ugly head yet again.
But no worries, said pundits and voters, the whole likability thing was unique to Hillary! Surely no women in the future who wanted to run for president would face that kind of scrutiny because we’d come a long way, baby! In 2020 and beyond, women presidential candidates would be judged on their experience and merits. The treatment Hillary got was just a one off.
Sadly, we’re now discovering, as I contended four years ago, that our demand for likability was much, much more than a Hillary thing, and that women in the 2020 race, and those who vie in future White House races, will face the same likability scrutiny as Hillary, even while male candidates still do not.
Dahlia Lithwick at Slate recently called our obsession with likability as it applies to the current crop of 2020 candidates a “uniquely American pathology.” And she’s right. We have become a nation obsessed with our candidates — especially female candidates — being one thing or cut from one mold; we can’t get our own heads around the fact that people are messy and complicated and, sometimes, not so nice … or likable.
How do we get past this crazy need for female likability in women who want to be president? That will only happen when we, as voters — and those in the media who continue to see increased readership and ratings when they pound that trope to death— take a long hard look at our own issues with this. Because our obsession isn’t about the candidates — it’s about what we project onto them to make us feel better about our own imperfect lives and imperfect decisions, and whether we can live up to our own likability standards.