Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to welcome Maria Wood as a new contributor to the Spy.
With the onset of the 2020 election cycle and Elizabeth Warren’s ebullient entry into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, the world of political punditry has been filled with commentary about the sexist backlash she will face and the unfair standards women are held to in political races and the broader professional world.
I have long been a supporter of Warren’s, and while I am excited about her candidacy, I am already exhausted by the endless hot takes on the Oh! So! Exciting! prospect of a girl campaigning for the job of leader of the free world. The serious candidacy of a woman seems to inevitably bring out the David Attenborough in much of the national conversation, regardless of the serious female candidates we have already seen and the many women who will undoubtedly join the race this year.
I’m even more exhausted because questions about whether a woman can get a fair shot in American presidential politics are still so pertinent. We still need to continually underline the impossible standards to which the American power structure—and the American electorate—hold women, and the many unfair hurdles female candidates must clear to be taken seriously.
Warren is an eminently reasonable candidate for the presidency in this election cycle. She is a successful, high-profile, popular Senator in her second term, with both expertise and charisma. She knows the Constitution, she understands how government is supposed to work, and she has enormous fund-raising capacity. All of this is overshadowed by constant analysis of A Woman’s Chances and A Woman’s Strategy, by debate over whether criticism is warranted or stems from overt or implicit misogyny, and by gratuitous comparisons with the ghosts of other female candidates past, present, and future.
The most infuriating thing about the pieces that have already appeared and the many more that will be written over the next two years is that they will remain relevant. Candidates, spokespeople, and their supporters and detractors alike will have to respond to questions about “electability,” “likeability,” “relatability,” (is there even such a thing as a woman you’d want to grab a beer with?) as well as competence, trustworthiness, and warmth (or the lack thereof), along with a host of other gendered topics that will sometimes arise in the form of sympathetic questions and sometimes as bare-knuckled accusations.
As a woman, Warren will need to be perfect, and even if she is, she will face unending sexist criticisms. She will be distrusted: she’ll be called deceitful, duplicitous, and dishonest. She will be considered unlikable: cold, aloof, elitist, boring. She’ll be accused of “lecturing,” “haranguing,” and thinking she’s smarter than voters. She’ll also be accused of not being serious enough. When she laughs she’ll be frivolous, or inauthentic, or both.
She’ll be deemed incompetent. She’ll be accused of having lived in an ivory tower, and the claim will be made that she doesn’t know how the “real world” works. Her motherly and grandmotherly qualities will be discussed. Her emotional stability will be questioned. If she is sure of herself and speaks forcefully, she will be called angry. If she sheds a tear or lets her voice quaver, she’ll be painted as too emotional, even hysterical. On the other hand, if she doesn’t show emotion, she’ll be too detached, and that is when we’ll hear that she’s “cold” and “aloof.”
There will be less disguised and even proud misogyny. We’ll hear about whether she’s pretty, whether she dresses well, whether her makeup and hair are good. We’ll discuss whether she’s capable of being tough enough to handle macho adversaries like Putin and Kim Jong-Un.
Questions will be raised about whether she is too ambitious, whether she shouldn’t be satisfied as a Senator. Some of these debates will be confusing, because it’s not an unreasonable question, and not necessarily gendered: Good senatorial skills do not necessarily coincide with good presidential skills. Issues of temperament and competence and experience are crucial to any presidential candidacy. But, we will not be able to conscientiously consider these questions without first considering their gendered qualities.
Which brings me back to my exhaustion. Isn’t it time for Americans to put aside these ridiculous questions, and stop wondering whether we can be led by a woman? It is, of course, but we aren’t there yet, so we need to keep having these conversations, continuing to examine our words and our motives, because it is really important that we elect the most qualified and the most temperamentally suited candidate to the highest office in the land, regardless of gender. The stakes are too high to settle for anything less just because we are afraid to disrupt our antiquated national hierarchies.