fb-pixelThe dos and don’ts for the women running for president - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Opinion | Madeleine May Kunin

The dos and don’ts for the women running for president

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris arrives to have lunch with the Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem on Feb. 21.Drew Angerer/Getty Images/Getty Images

I slumped in my chair when Hillary Clinton was defeated by Donald Trump in 2016. At the age of 83, I was sure that I would not live to see a woman become president of the United States.

Now, at 85, I’m once again dreaming of a female president. Four credible and experienced women have announced they are running for president, and there may be more.

Four are US senators: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Kamala Harris of California. They witnessed Clinton get demonized twice, in the 2016 the 2012 elections, and yet they have decided to plunge into the maelstrom of a presidential campaign. What can they expect? Today, in 2019, we are still debating whether Clinton was defeated by her gender, or as some people have said, “I’ll vote for a woman, just not for Hillary.” Now there are four.

Yes, they may prefer to vote for a male candidate for other reasons than gender. Ideally, gender should be off the table.


Is that possible? Have we finally gotten over the gender question? Clinton showed us certain dos and don’ts that may be instructive for women running in 2020.

A female candidate for president should wear a black pants suit. Clinton did that for a while, but then she went for color and there were problems. Kamala Harris wore black for her announcement speech. After a few appearances in a black suit, clothing becomes a nonissue. Boring is good.

Hair is always a flashpoint for female candidates. A simple rule: Don’t change one strand or dare to experiment with color. And laughter: Be careful to hit the right note. Remember, Clinton was charged with cackling.

The most difficult challenge for female presidential candidates is likability. Warren heard that criticism right after she announced her candidacy. Women have to walk a tightrope between being tough enough to be commander in chief (masculine) and nice enough to be liked (feminine) while still remaining authentic.


The four women vying to take on Trump in 2020 have learned from Clinton’s campaign about what not to do. Was her experience unique, or could it apply to any female candidate?

I believe that gender will continue to hover over the presidential race, but it won’t determine the outcome. Times have changed. We are more used to seeing women in leadership. Slowly we have moved beyond the “firsts.” The spotlight on the second woman to receive her party’s nomination will be much dimmer than the first.

This is a spotlight also held by the #MeToo movement, which is on the alert for any hint of gender bias or outright sexism. A male opponent can no longer afford to offend. Stalking a woman during a debate will not go unnoticed. Punishment from voters may be swift, and the public will not be inclined to obsess over clothing or hair when issues like income divide, race, or climate change are so critical. The viability of democracy itself may be tested in the next election.

In 2020, I’ll be 87. Chances are good that I may be able to fulfill a lifetime dream to help elect a woman president.

Madeleine May Kunin, former governor of Vermont and former ambassador to Switzerland, is author of “Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties.”