Will there ever be a right time for a woman president?
I understood why progressive voters were ambivalent at best about Hillary Clinton in 2008 and 2016. Clinton was a core part of a powerful political dynasty, with centrist policies and backed by the Democratic power structure. With that gigantic head start, it was easy to feel that Clinton’s election would not be a true test of the potential for women to ascend to the highest office in the land.
But four years later, the landscape looks dramatically different.
We now have an open field that includes two staunchly progressive candidates vying strongly for the nomination, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Running for the moderate vote, Amy Klobuchar is the last viable woman in the race and is facing three men, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden and Mike Bloomberg.
I’m not here to tell you who to vote for or to suggest you should vote for a woman just to see a woman elected. But I would encourage everyone not to count out a woman candidate over false concerns of “electability.”
For all of our talk about being a model of democracy, the U.S. ranks 75th in representation of women in government. Even with a surge of women elected to the House in 2018, the U.S. doesn’t rise to the worldwide average of 25% women in lower houses.
Women seeking higher office have to thread a very fine needle of double standards and biases. If you seem too ambitious, you won’t be likable by both women and men. If you are too aggressive, you will seem angry, which is “not a good look.” If you are too passive, you will be seen as weak.
One of the biggest and most persistent challenges for women candidates is the issue of “electability.” Electability is a Catch-22 for candidates who are vying to be the first to break a barrier. You can’t be elected because you aren’t “electable,” you aren’t perceived as electable because nobody like you has ever been elected.
Democratic women running against Trump face another bind. Voters fearing another four years of Trump worry that now is not the time to take a risk on a woman candidate when sexism could be leveraged to hurt her campaign. In other words, we want a woman candidate, but now is not the right time.
While 74% of voters in a June Ipsos poll say they would be comfortable with a woman president, only 33% believed their neighbors would be. This “I am not sexist/racist/homophobic but I think everyone else is” attitude can create a fait accompli for those trying to break the most persistent glass ceiling.
The fears are not unfounded. In exit polls from 2016, those who had a negative view of both Clinton and Trump still voted for Trump by 20 points. This holds up even when voters believe a woman is more qualified.
Voters are more open to women in legislative offices than they are to women in executive roles. Just nine women serve in state governor’s offices across the country.
As scholar Brittney Cooper wrote in Time magazine, while simply being a woman does not make you a better leader, it matters that a candidate is a woman. “Being progressive doesn’t mean that one’s race or gender ceases to matter in one’s leadership style and prerogatives,” she wrote, “especially not in a world where gender and race are always presumed to matter for how women and people of color will govern.”
Some women candidates worry talking about these dynamics reinforces them and adds to the belief that women can’t win. It’s a legitimate concern, but I disagree. Just as we talked about the impact of race in 2008, we should be able to talk about gender in politics and about the headwinds women (and non-binary and trans people) face in 2020. These headwinds are compounded when you are a woman of color. Only by being honest with ourselves about how far we have to go will we be able to marshal the strategies to create a more equitable playing field.
Part of that honesty requires vigilance in calling out sexism, racism and homophobia wherever it appears, even when it’s from people who support our favorite candidates.
If supporters allow sexism and sexist double standards to be the wind beneath the wings of their favorite male candidate in 2020, that should be challenged, no matter who does it. The ends never justify the means. Sanders supporter Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez modeled this solidarity beautifully in defending Warren against such attacks last week.
After 231 years, and 44 male presidents, is now finally the right time? We will see in the coming months. But what we do know is that as the campaign gets tighter, the rhetoric will get uglier and more sexist — if we let it.