As the 2020 election has taken a particularly … familiar turn, the country should step back and evaluate what got us to this point. Why is our Democratic nominee down to two old white men? This long-winded race to the Oval Office started in early 2019 with six women in the running. Now, with only a few months until the Democratic National Convention, the only candidates left standing are Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Tulsi Gabbard. As Gabbard has pulled only two delegates of the 1,991 a candidate needs in order to win the nomination, she’s got a very slim chance. Elizabeth Warren, a once front-runner, exited the race just two weeks ago with only 64 delegates after progressive competitor Bernie Sanders pulled 551 on Super Tuesday. Throughout this election cycle, Warren and her female opponents have been met with sexism. This sexism, coupled with racism for candidates like Kamala Harris, plays an undeniable role in women’s political candidacies.
Self-efficacy is a value of how much of an impact an individual believes they can make. In a society socialized by gender, girls are taught and encouraged to aid their communities through activities like volunteering and teaching rather than representing those same communities through holding positions of elected office. Jennifer Lawless, a gender scholar and professor at American University, states in Gendered Perceptions and Political Candidacies that women are 29% less likely than men to assess that they are “very qualified” to run for office, while the survey pool consisted of men and women who share “professional and educational backgrounds” and similar “experiences typical of actual candidates and officeholders.” Because our everyday activities are so heavily gendered, young girls will often carry lasting impressions of their own lack or absence of self-efficacy into adulthood. The odds are stacked against women from the beginning: we’re taught to stay in the private sphere and out of places of power.
But as shown in Lawless’ The Primary Reason for Women’s Underrepresentation? women who run for congressional elections often “win at rates equal to those of their male counterparts.” Among the blue wave of the 2018 Congressional elections was freshman representative Katie Hill. Winning 54% against her Republican opponent, Hill represented the 25th District of California until October 27, 2019, when she resigned after becoming the victim of “revenge porn,” the sharing of private and sexual material of another without their consent, by her now ex-husband. While this is not the only reason Hill resigned, among allegations of having inappropriate relations with subordinate staffers, leaking nude photos of a Congress member without their consent is not only dehumanizing, but also a threat to any woman considering running for political office. Even when women break barriers through their candidacy, they continue to face sexism while in office.
Katie Hill stated in her resignation speech that she was leaving because “of a misogynistic culture that gleefully consumed [her] naked pictures, capitalized on [her] sexuality.” What we’ve watched happen in the 2020 presidential election is a larger reflection of the misogyny Hill has faced: sexism in American politics mirrors what we value as Americans. The harsh reality of this election cycle is that women will not be among American values on the Democratic ballot. America did not believe a woman was capable of being president because women are not seen as strong political leaders even when they are the best choice.
And while a white woman running for office may be heavily scrutinized, women of color in elections face even more uphill battles. Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman to seek the presidential nomination, ran on the Democratic ticket in 1972 and faced pushback from the Congressional Black Caucus and the media. She was blocked from participating in “televised primary debates,” and only after suing was she allowed to make one speech. At a recent event in Fairfield, Alabama, former 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris named Shirley Chisholm “her hero” after having faced similar strife and dismissal nearly 50 years later. Senator Harris, the first African American Attorney General of California, was continuously doubted: her challenge was the concern that the country “isn’t ready for a Black woman to be president.” To this, she commented that “this has come up in every campaign that I’ve won.” Although her Senate record states that she’s electable, Americans are still buying into overwhelming misogyny–and racism–in the electoral process.
But female representation in Congress is currently at its highest since 1992! Wouldn’t a female candidate for president also be accepted at high rates by the American people? Their states already voted for them, so why not now for the presidency? The misogynist rhetoric of “You’re a great candidate! … but not for this job,” has been weaponized in the private sphere for as long as women have been in the workforce, and one of the most powerful jobs in the world is no exception. A concept heavily used during this election cycle to uphold patriarchy is the arbitrary and incalculable “likeability.” “Likeability” helps determine “electability” (also an arbitrary concept), is subjective, and often favors male candidates. Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of small-town South Bend, Indiana, was never questioned about his minimal experience whereas Kirsten Gillibrand was challenged on her 14 years in the Senate. Buttigieg was deemed “qualified” for his executive experience as mayor of a town of approximately 101,000 whereas Gillibrand represents constituents in eight cities from New York at a national level, far more than tripling Buttigieg’s constituency. Yet she was deemed too inexperienced for the presidency, dropping out long before Buttigieg.
Why is this? Well it could have something to do with the fact that the current top article about Kirsten Gillibrand is about the “controversy” over how she eats. Not only are women in politics scrutinized for their experience (even when they are highly experienced) but they’re also judged on other irrelevant factors. How you dress, how much makeup you wear, even how you eat are all apparently adequate questions for women running for office. The ridiculous expectations of perfection for women seem insurmountable: whether or not a candidate had stellar experience like Gillibrand, a feasible plan for every issue imaginable like Warren, or exuded joy and charisma like Kamala, they were constantly met with doubt about their “likeability,” and therefore, their electability. Recently, an artists’ visual rendering of this absurd standard went viral. Jackie Ann Ruiz created a portrait of Elizabeth Warren exclaiming “She’s electable if you fucking vote 4 her” All of these women were arguably more electable than many of their male counterparts–but only if American voters actually voted for them.
It is truly exhausting to be a woman watching (and cheering on) other women in politics. Lawless concludes that “women must be stronger candidates, or at least candidates who are willing to endure greater challenges…than their male counterparts face [to make it through the primary process]. Women, in other words, have to be ‘better’ than men in order to fare equally well.” The women in this election have outdone their male opponents over and over, working hard to shift the narrative for women in politics–“just not yet.”