The idea of examining a female candidate’s appeal based on whether people like her has become an almost comically sexist trope at this point.
It was a sticking point for Hillary Clinton. And earlier this month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also faced a round of “is she likable enough” analysis.
Now it’s Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s turn. The Democrat from New York held her first press conference Wednesday since announcing her presidential exploratory committee. As if on cue, after she finished her speech at the event in Troy, New York, she was right off the bat asked about likability.
A male reporter essentially told Gillibrand she was nice. Then, he wondered if being nice would be a selling point in the 2020 presidential election considering that Trump ― widely understood as not nice ― would be the competition. (We couldn’t identify specifically who asked the question. If it was you, please email email@example.com.)
“I think a lot of people see you as pretty likable, a nice person, given the person who we have in the White House, who I think most people would kind of agree, Republicans and Democrats, he’s not the most likable guy in the world,” the reporter said. “How much of a selling point” is that likability, he asked, comparing her to the presumably equally likable Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) ― who may also throw her hat in the ring. “Maybe the country wants someone like that now,” he said.
Gillibrand didn’t directly answer whether people will want to vote for someone they like in 2020. She certainly didn’t address whether that’s a question that typically only women are asked about. (It is.) She went on to say that people want “someone who will fight for them.”
She then answered the second half of the reporter’s question, about why she changed her mind and decided to run for president after she said she would not. “The urgency of this moment now is we have to take on President Trump,” she said. “I believe he is literally ripping apart the fabric of this country, the moral fabric. You’ve got to restore that decency.”
Asking the question doesn’t make the reporter sexist, but believing a woman needs to be likable to win office is, if anything, an unconscious bias.
In late December, Politico kicked off a mini-firestorm with a story and a tweet that asked: “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux ― written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?”
Critics quickly pointed out that Warren and Clinton were incredibly different candidates with little in common aside from gender and party.
Male candidates do benefit when they’re perceived to be a good guy, the type of person voters would want to get a beer with (a scenario that is also often gendered). But female candidates are now facing this “likability” question far more often. Since Clinton was perceived to be unlikable, every other woman running for president ― no matter how different they are from her ― is now being compared to her on this measure.
This is a core part of the tightrope women must walk when running for office, particularly president. And it’s one Gillibrand, who’s made clear she plans to put women’s issues front and center in her campaign, certainly understands. A representative from her office declined to comment for this story.
Women stereotypically aren’t supposed to want to be powerful; they’re expected to be nice and warm and helpful. They should smile! Sure, ladies can be good secretaries of state or even senators. Those jobs require working with others and can fit into the standard tropes about men and women.
But running for president is clearly something you do if you want power. And even in 2019, a woman seeking a powerful position is seen as violating those gender norms. It’s simply not very nice to want to be the boss.
And yet, research has shown that a female boss must be perceived as nice to succeed.
This McSweeney’s piece nails the whole phenomenon. It’s titled, “I don’t hate women candidates ― I just hated Hillary and coincidentally I’m starting to hate Elizabeth Warren.”
The fact that the male reporter who asked the question seems to believe Gillibrand is nice and likable, then, isn’t actually so terrible for the senator. It’s crucial.