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OPINION | Renée Graham

Forget likability. Smart, tough women are the future

Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, spoke to supporters Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.Matthew Putney/Associated Press

Nancy Pelosi is House speaker again. She didn’t get there by being likable.

That should inspire every girl and every woman told that their “unlikability” is harmful to their goals, whether they want to be class president or president of the United States.

“How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?”, Politico tweeted one day after the Massachusetts senator confirmed her presidential ambitions.

And so it begins. That same hoary narrative of “unlikability” that dogged Hillary Clinton through her two presidential campaigns is chomping at Warren’s heels. Another accomplished woman is judged by her “likability” — whatever that means — instead of her political ability.


Hillary got pilloried. Women candidates will get Hillaried.

Of course, all this talk about likability is really about submission. Its veiled message to women is obvious: Downplay your intelligence, douse your ambitions, and know your place. And that place is never fighting for spaces some believe rightfully belong to a man. This drivel drives Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who regularly tells his viewers that women’s success is detrimental to men.

If only women were likable — silent and compliant — every little thing would be all right.

It’s a poisonous old refrain, one that also took root during Clinton’s first presidential run in 2008. During a debate, she was asked to respond to New Hampshire voters who liked her qualifications, “but are hesitating on the likability issue.”

Then a New York senator, Clinton looked as if she’d heard some version of this question too many times. First she joked, “Well, that hurts my feelings.” But when she added, “I don’t think I’m that bad,” a smirking Barack Obama interjected, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”

Whatever Obama’s true intention, his comment sounded more dismissive of Clinton than the ridiculous question itself. Yet that whole exchange highlighted issues some have with women who pursue power. Every time Clinton ran for higher office, her favorability ratings plummeted.


It’s common knowledge that women are criticized for exhibiting behaviors admired in men. If he’s decisive, she’s pushy; if he’s passionate, she’s too emotional. And this is not solely a man’s affliction, unless you’ve forgotten the 52 percent of white women who voted for Trump in 2016. Some of that support was certainly fed by the obsolete idea that leaders should be male.

When a woman’s likability is publicly questioned, it puts her on the defensive. Often, she then concocts some version of herself to overcome her perceived unlikability.

Recently, there was Warren having a beer on Instagram, just as Clinton tipped back a boilermaker on the campaign trail in 2008. And just like Clinton, Warren is now being roasted for inauthenticity. (Side note: How did alcohol become the universal symbol of just-folks realness?)

For women, it’s a third rail, one that potential presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Beto O’Rourke will be spared. And to think 2018 was dubbed “The Year of the Woman.”

It’s been more than 40 years since Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich coined the phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history.” Sworn in Thursday, the 116th Congress made history with a record 36 women newly elected to the House during last November’s midterms. There are now more than 100 congresswomen.


Add to that surge of female political prominence the expectation that at least three other women — senators Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand — are possible contenders for next year’s Democratic presidential nomination.

None of these women, I imagine, are overly consumed by their likability. They’re focused on helping a nation derailed daily by the Trump administration. That should also be the focus of pundits, journalists, and the rest of us. Stop giving this sexist question of likability more oxygen than it deserves.

It deserves none.

No one gives you power,” Pelosi has famously said. “You have to take it from them.” For years, the California Democrat has been pestered by questions about her likability, even within her own party. Meanwhile, all she has done is become the most powerful woman elected to office in American history. Twice.

Reducing a woman’s electability to some inscrutable measure of affability is the political equivalent of a man telling a woman to smile more. If men were held to such standards, Donald Trump would not be president.

It’s 2019. From the House to (hopefully) the White House, audacious women are the future — whether the haters like it or not.

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.