Elizabeth Warren won’t be the first woman to take a shot at shattering that highest glass ceiling if she decides to run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. But she might be the first woman who kicked off her presidential inquiry by acknowledging how incensed she is.
“I’m angry, and I own it,” Warren declared at her Holyoke town hall, where she revealed she would take “a hard look” at running for president after the midterm elections on Nov. 6.
But Warren is by no means alone in voicing fury. This year, women politicians are showing their anger in ways that depart starkly from the well-worn rules that said they could not show their emotion lest they seem unbalanced, hysterical, threatening, or otherwise veer from societal expectations for the proper way women should behave.
“The rules are changing dramatically and very, very quickly,” said Jess McIntosh, a national Democratic strategist. “We are already seeing ‘this kind of woman can’t win, this kind of campaign can’t win’ isn’t the case anymore.”
Ayanna Pressley — who is on track to become the state’s first woman of color in Congress — told a crowd Monday protesting the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court that she’s being advised to avoid coming across as “outraged or angry for fear of being labeled as an angry black woman” on the campaign trail.
“Well I am angry. And I am outraged,” said Pressley, an assault survivor, talking about the Kavanaugh nomination as her voice rose to a shout. “Because this is outrageous.”
“Who the hell does Brett Kavanaugh think he is?” tweeted Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat running for Congress in Michigan who is almost certain to win and become the first Muslim-American and Palestinian woman elected to Congress.
“I just want to say to the men of this country, just shut up and step up,” Senator Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, her voice laced with disdain, said at a press conference on the GOP’s handling of sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh. “Do the right thing — for a change,” she continued, then told reporters “you can see I’m a little upset by this.”
The willingness of women politicos to shake off the old rules of emotional engagement is part of the broader firestorm that President Trump’s 2016 victory ignited, analysts say. A historic number of women have decided to run for office in 2018, and many have already won tough primaries — like Pressley, who deposed a white male longtime incumbent in the Seventh District Democratic primary. Other women have fueled a new era of political activism on the left and propelled the #MeToo movement that’s reverberating through the broader culture.
“Even if they don’t say explicitly they’re angry, many of the women who are running this cycle, particularly on the Democratic side and particularly as newcomers or challengers, are running as part of the resistance, which in and of itself is fueled by a lot of anger [and] anxiety,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
Female politicians speaking about their own anger are tapping into the feelings pulsing through swaths of the electorate, analysts say. Nationwide, 50 percent of women feel anxious about politics and more than 60 percent feel angry, according to a national poll by the University of Delaware.
These angry voters -- including but not limited to women -- are frustrated with Trump, his policies, and behavior. More broadly, they’re tired of feeling voiceless and unrepresented, analysts say.
“That’s exactly what women are looking for right now,” McIntosh said. “We want our anger to be validated and not dismissed for once.”
Anger isn’t the only stereotype-challenging emotion women are expressing on the campaign trail and in the halls of Congress. Candidates like Pressley and Gretchen Whitmer, who is running for governor in Michigan, are speaking openly of personal experiences of sexual assault. Women are talking about sexism, too — another taboo that conventional wisdom said a few years ago would make them look like victims, not leaders.
“Women candidates around the country using their personal narratives — that in previous cycles I think they would have been told that’s too emotional, that’s too personal — to great effect,” said Representative Katherine Clark, of Melrose, who has been helping lead candidate recruitment efforts for House Democrats.
This vulnerability presents a stark contrast to Hillary Clinton’s public persona during her 2016 campaign: She couldn’t be angry, but she couldn’t be too soft. At least that’s what the consultants and pundits advised. Then she was criticized for being robotic and cold.
Reince Priebus, then-chairman of the Republican National Committee, criticized her for not smiling enough during one forum, while a few weeks later another conservative commentator chastised her for smiling too much.
Pundits accused her of lecturing, shouting, shrieking, screaming. Being angry. Trump called Clinton “shrill” on the campaign trail.
Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s 2016 communications director, later said it “felt like Hillary was running for president with half her humanity tied behind her back.”
But while there are examples throughout the country, women running for office are by no means free of the tightrope that’s long constrained them more than their male counterparts, said Clark, especially those in tougher races than Warren faces in her bid for reelection to the Senate.
“I think that women candidates are very aware of checking their emotions and making sure that they don’t come across as angry,” Clark said. “Many of the women who have been speaking out, this isn’t their first race, they have the ability of incumbency and having people know them in many other contexts to balance off being angry. I think that women do that mental calculation not only in campaigns but in their professional lives many times a day.”Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.