Here we are, poised to possibly elect our first female president — a milestone for progress — and we’re at a crossroads as a nation, with Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina at the center.
American voters say the country would be better off with more women in office, yet that doesn’t mean they’ll vote for them. Women are running to be CEO of the country, yet we’re still asking about their clothes, hair, voices, and now faces. We’re living in a reality where pop culture icons like Beyonce extol the virtues of feminism, yet political pundits call out women for “playing the gender card.”
When men are more than 80 percent of Congress, almost 90 percent of governors, and 100 percent of past presidents, the message is clear: Women are at the periphery of leadership and men — almost always white men — are at the center. We haven’t had a woman in the White House because there are systemic barriers between women and the oldest old boys clubs.
How do those deeply entrenched barriers manifest in the political sphere? They turn into roadblocks on the path to power, allowing women to sometimes get a seat at the table, but not at the head of the table.
We see the height of those barriers in how hard women have to work to reach the same goals as men. They’re present in how women have to do more and be more to be considered qualified. It’s made clear by the fact that, even with accomplishments they earned in their own right — a US Senate seat, the role as a leading diplomat of the free world — they are often defined by their husbands. Just look to Hillary Clinton and former presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole for evidence. Dole’s husband, former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, even gave an interview where he hinted at supporting his wife’s opponent.
My nonpartisan foundation has studied women’s races for executive office for nearly two decades, and we know that women must clear higher hurdles on their way to the corner office — or Oval Office. Consider our findings: Voters hold women candidates to higher standards than they do men. They afford them a “virtue advantage” — the expectation is that women are inherently more honest and ethical — but quickly knock them off that pedestal if they slip up. And when it comes to mistakes, women have little room to make them. Even slight missteps undercut voters’ perceptions of both their qualifications and likability. Some people never forgave Martha Coakley for jokingly calling Curt Schilling a Yankees fan for agreeing with Rudy Giuliani.
We know from Barbara Lee Family Foundation research that female candidates are in a double bind when it comes to winning over voters: Their qualifications and likability are connected, rising and falling together. Voters will vote for a man they don’t like — it happens all the time — but a woman? A majority of voters, including 90 percent of women, say it’s important that they like candidates in order to vote for them. Likeability matters more for women candidates than it does for men. Case in point: Fiorina gave a strong debate performance last month, yet people wondered aloud if she smiled enough. They applaud Bernie Sanders’s candor while they question Clinton’s humor. Was she funny enough on Saturday Night Live?
Despite the obstacles, I remain as optimistic as ever.
The good news is that voters like qualified women. A woman who gets results can enhance perceptions of her competence. Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, who is running for US Senate, is a prime example of that phenomenon in practice. Touting a track record of success bringing legislators together to pass a no-new-taxes budget shows she can get the job done — and voters like that. Her favorability ratings prove it.
Women can be 360-degree candidates, be policy-minded, and still talk about family. They no longer have to be versions of men to be successful. Being themselves has much more power than we realized. Take Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, for example. Her powerful TV spot “The Bike Ride” showed her daughter explaining how Raimondo would be a job creator while the family biked around town. Voters relate to female candidates showing all sides of themselves. And that’s good for everyone.
I remember my grandmother, Minnie Greenberg, talking about how excited she felt watching the suffragists march on New York’s Fifth Avenue, demanding the right to vote. If she were still here, I would hear her asking: “What’s taking us so long?”
Women have been running for president since 1872, when Victoria Woodhull was a candidate for the Equal Rights Party. It took more than 70 years from the first women’s rights conference at Seneca Falls until my grandmother won the right to vote in 1920. It took us until 2014 to hit 100 women in Congress. The march to equality is slow.
Let’s make 2016 the year we pick up the pace.
Barbara Lee is founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and Barbara Lee Political Office. Her foundation has produced nonpartisan research on women’s races for executive office for nearly two decades. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.