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Opinion | Barbara Lee

A woman can win the White House in 2020

The White House.
The White House. (Susan Walsh/AP)

It would be a dream come true — if only I’d been able to imagine it. Six women have announced their bids for the White House. Four of them — Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar — are United States senators. US Representative Tulsi Gabbard and independent candidate Marianne Williamson have also joined the race.

Just by throwing their hats into the ring, they have made history. Never before have more than two women vied for major party nominations. (In 2016, Carly Fiorina sought the Republican Party nomination, while Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee.)

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Yet even with a record number of women in the race, another history-making presidential ticket is far from guaranteed. Voters’ unconscious bias regarding women who aspire to executive power remains a very real obstacle. Still, there is reason to think the outcome can be different this time.

In a presidential race, no flaw is too nebulous, no misstep too minor, to dig up and display for public scrutiny. For women, though, the backlash feels almost built-in. Within hours of Elizabeth Warren’s exploratory-committee announcement, Politico was already holding a referendum on her likability, a well-known camouflage for gender bias.

A similar air of skepticism can be seen in the coverage of Gillibrand and Harris. Gillibrand was labeled “inauthentic” in an early media report, while Harris was basically called two-faced. The insinuation is clear: Ambitious women are not to be trusted.

Certainly, a presidential candidate’s record and past statements are worthy of close examination. Yet the defaults seem set. On questions of personality, policy, and performance, men get the benefit, while women get the doubt.

That’s why it’s hard to picture a woman with the relative inexperience of the 37-year-old South Bend, Ind., mayor, Pete Buttigieg, getting the same thoughtful consideration. It’s also impossible to imagine a woman candidate being taken seriously after live-streaming a dental exam, as Beto O’Rourke famously did. As CNN’s Nia-Malika Henderson wrote about him: “This could never, ever be a woman.”

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It’s no surprise that double standards endure, even in a political environment that has recently been more favorable toward women leaders. Research has repeatedly shown that while voters are increasingly comfortable seeing women serve as members of a legislature, they remain uneasy about women in executive roles.

To win over voters, women seeking executive office must pull off a delicate balancing act. They must prove themselves qualified, but without appearing self-serving. They must assure voters that they can be tough, but also caring and compassionate. If they’ve changed their stance on an issue, they must explain their evolution without renouncing their own record.

It’s a difficult double bind: one false step and you could blow your chances. Sound too polished and you’ll be accused of being opportunistic and overly rehearsed.

So what, if anything, is different now?

First, with multiple women in the race, it will be harder for voters to hide their bias behind other excuses. For the last 20 years, I’ve heard people insist over and over that they’d gladly vote for a woman, “just not that woman.” With several women in serious contention for the presidency, this assertion will at last be put to the test.

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Second, more women in elected office means a stronger sisterhood of support. Kudos to the women of the 116th Congress, who are already using their platforms to lift one another up and push back against gendered criticism. They are likely to become powerful allies and surrogates for the women running for the nation’s highest office.

And finally, the wave of women’s activism, from the Women’s March to the #MeToo movement, has mobilized advocates across the country to recognize and quickly respond to unfair attacks on women. It was heartening to see that the overwhelming response to Politico’s first controversial tweet about Warren’s likability came from women and allies who sprang to the senator’s defense, calling out the publication’s sexist narrative.

A template for a successful woman presidential candidate does not yet exist. Until it does, women contenders must create their own in a contest that allows them little room for error. The difference is that this time, they won’t have to do it alone.

Barbara Lee is president and founder of the Barbara Lee Political Office.