I received half a dozen emails in quick succession from female friends who had been watching the swearing-in of this diverse Congress and found themselves moved nearly to tears.
When Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, became the first women elected to the House of Representatives in 1917, her fellow legislators lauded what she brought to Washington: “Her tact, her gentle feminine persuasion” and her devotion to her chief causes of pacifism and nonviolence.
The whole point of electing women, some moderate advocates argued, was that they could be a tempering feminine counterbalance to easily inflamed men. They weren’t there to replace male lawmakers. They were there to complement them.
It was a strategic move for supporters of suffrage — an assurance to the opposition that women in political office needn’t be threatening.
Do you have something to say?Share your opinion by sending a Letter to the Editor. Email email@example.com and please include your full name, address and telephone number for verification only. Letters are limited to 200 words.
Most Read Opinion Stories
- Seattle Times editorial board endorsements: 2020 primary election on Aug. 4
- The Times recommends: Chris Reykdal for Superintendent of Public Instruction
- The Times recommends: U.S. Rep. Denny Heck for Lieutenant Governor
- The Times recommends: Pat McCarthy for state auditor
- The Times recommends: Kim Wyman for Secretary of State
Maybe expectations need this time to be crystal clear: Female politicians weren’t running for office to be gentle, they were running to govern. They weren’t planning to be benevolent mothers, they were planning to be legislators. If you found this idea uncomfortable, then you might indeed feel threatened.
I was thinking about the ghosts of our past, as I replayed a viral 6-second clip of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., waving silently on an Amtrak car. Her caption: “I hear women candidates are most likable in the quiet car!”
She’d apparently tweeted it in response to a poorly titled Politico post which read, “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux — being written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?”
Warren’s tweet went viral. Some attention came from supporters, who liked the nose-thumbing. Most of the attention came from people who were eager to prove her point. “You are NOT likable,” read one response.
Progress, in many ways, has been made in gallops over the past century. Warren posted her tweet on the eve of a massive historic moment: A record number of women were about to be sworn into Congress. They included the first Muslim-American women and the first Native American women. Nancy Pelosi, elected the first female Speaker of the House 12 years ago, was poised to assume the role again.
Thursday’s swearing-in, if you watched it, had its moments. It had Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., casting her vote for Pelosi by saying she was “standing on the shoulders of the women who marched 100 years ago to give me the right to vote.” It had parents holding babies.
In that moment, it didn’t really matter if pundits thought they were too unappealing to win; they had, in fact, already won.
Newly elected Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., politely shook Pelosi’s hand and then immediately played with his phone instead of listening to her acceptance speech. No matter. She still had the speech to give; she still had the gavel in her hand. Do you think Nancy Pelosi cares if you like her? The woman has raised five children; she is impervious to hormonal people screaming “I hate you,” while demanding they be liberated from her rule.
First-term firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was booed by GOP lawmakers when she cast her vote for Pelosi, but the discourteous reaction didn’t prevent her from having a vote to cast. “Don’t hate me cause you ain’t me, fellas,” she tweeted to her detractors.
The thing about the likability question is it doesn’t really matter in the end. I received half a dozen emails in quick succession from female friends who had been watching the swearing-in of this diverse Congress and found themselves moved nearly to tears. None of them mentioned how much they liked the female legislators. What was moving to them was how the legislators had made it to Washington despite the tweets, and memes, and she’s too stodgy and she’s not stodgy enough, and despite centuries-worth of lots of people not liking them.
We should never start with likability. Likability can come later. Likability can come when all genders are equally represented, when it’s common enough that people start to wonder what the fuss was about all along. We can like women later. Start by getting them in the room.