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Opinion | Barbara Lee

What if Bernie Sanders were a woman?

Evan Vucci/AP

The New Hampshire presidential primaries mark the beginning of a long campaign, with candidates now onto states where voters look a lot more like our country. The next states will be different, but one thing remains the same.

If Bernie Sanders were a woman, he couldn’t get away with: shouting constantly. Scowling on TV. Sounding grumpy. Looking frumpy. Needing a haircut. Getting a haircut.

These are surface-level examples but they demonstrate a larger double standard at play: If Sanders were a woman running to be commander in chief, would he be taken seriously?

My foundation’s nonpartisan research shows that women running for president must show their expertise in traditionally male-dominated areas like the economy, while also showing their prowess on “women’s issues,” like health care and education — plus, everything else. For women candidates, the devil really is in the details.

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If Sanders were a woman running for president, he would need to be more than a one-issue candidate. To be sure, income inequality is a critically important problem to tackle, but if he were a woman he’d be dinged for harping on the same single issue without showcasing a leadership track record on everything else.

Sanders certainly rallies his campaign supporters around a common cause, but he doesn’t have a track record of finding common ground with his colleagues. He’s calling for a revolution on the campaign trail, but his record in the Senate doesn’t show he can work effectively to make that revolution a reality.

If he were a woman running for president, he’d have to be both competent and charismatic. Qualifications and likability are closely linked for women candidates. Women must be consistently conscious of factors affecting their likability — their voices, their emotions, their language, their faces. The same isn’t true for men. Voters evaluate men’s qualifications separately from how much they like them.

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Clinton knows what people care about, because she’s asked them about what’s important to them. She’s listened to them carefully, and heard their answers. She understands that the issues people face are wide-ranging, personal, and complex. She has a strong track record of leadership. She has detailed policy proposals on everything from stricter gun laws to women’s equality, to tackling substance abuse and mental health issues. And most important, we need someone who can work well with people, bring them together, and turn her plans into results.


Barbara Lee is founder and president of the Cambridge-based Barbara Lee Political Office and Barbara Lee Family Foundation.