As a record number of Democratic women seek America’s highest office – and look to limit Donald Trump’s presidency to a single term – familiar patterns have emerged in the narratives that surround them. But so, too, has a backlash to the old tropes, bolstered by the election of a record number of women in the 2018 midterm elections.
“I think in 2016, the idea that ‘likable’ was gendered wouldn’t have even come up. In 2019, people clearly recognized it and called it out,” said Jess McIntosh, who served as a communications aide to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the last election cycle.
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Women have already made history in what is shaping up to be a crowded and diverse field for Democrats, with the 2020 election poised to mark the first time more than one woman has fought for the party’s presidential nomination.
It’s a far cry from when Clinton stood alone in the 2008 primaries, and was infamously told by Barack Obama in a Democratic debate that she was “likable enough”. The coverage of Clinton in her first presidential bid drew widespread criticism for a relentless eye on everything from her personality and clothes to the tenor of her voice and what some media outlets characterized at the time as her “cackle”.
“Like her or not, one of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued – and accepted – role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media,” Katie Couric, then the anchor of the anchor of the CBS Evening News, reflected not long after Clinton was defeated by Barack Obama.
Eight years later, there was a palpable shift when Clinton launched her second campaign for the presidency. Much of the conversation around gender centered not on Clinton’s appearance or temperament, but rather the historic nature of her candidacy and the former secretary of state’s qualifications for the role of commander-in-chief.
What did not change, however, was the question of “likability” and ongoing commentary over Clinton’s trustworthiness – the latter propelled by the controversy over her emails and what some reporters have themselves acknowledged became a double standard in media coverage.
A report by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, released in the aftermath of the 2016 election, examined the role of gender in the campaign and found a double standard within perceptions of honesty and likability for women compared with men.
“Research on gender stereotypes reveals that voters may be less likely to expect honesty and ethical behavior from men than from women,” the report stated. “As a result, it is entirely possible that women candidates might be held to higher standards than men when it comes to honesty and ethics in their pasts and on the campaign trail.”
While the report found several factors contributed to those perceptions – namely the often misogynistic rhetoric that was a staple of Trump’s campaign rallies – its authors suggested the media played a role in advancing gender stereotypes by placing a constant emphasis on Clinton’s honesty and likability as opposed to that of her male counterparts.
“Look at all those freshman candidates who fully embraced the fact that they were balancing work and family, that their kids were on the campaign trail, that they were dealing with breastfeeding and carpools and making their lives work while also running for office,” Cutter said.
McIntosh said the #MeToo movement, which cast an unprecedented spotlight on sexual assault and harassment across a range of powerful industries, also brought with it a profound impact on how women are treated at every level, including by the media.
“You really can’t overstate what it means to have gotten some of these really badly behaving men out of positions of extreme power,” she said, while adding the emerging 2020 Democratic contenders: “If we froze the field right now, the top three candidates are women.”
Indeed, when a former mayor of San Francisco recently penned an open letter about dating Harris decades ago while implying he helped advance her career – the move was panned by several mainstream journalists.
Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said the disproportionate attention paid to Warren’s “likability”, as opposed to that of Harris, might instead be a construct of name recognition.
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“The people who vote, the people who live in this country are smarter than that.”