Women Politicians and the Relatability Problem

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images, Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images, Alex Wong/Getty Images

The next presidential race is all about women. Well, at least that’s the view from 2014. As Hillary Clinton knows all too well, a lot can change in the two years between the start of the presidential murmuring and the casting of actual ballots. Both parties are trying to woo millennial women. There’s been rampant speculation about how Chelsea’s pregnancy will affect Hillary’s chances. Reviews of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s new book frame it as a pre-presidential “get to know me and my politics” autobiography.

The 2016 previews have been so X chromosomeheavy that the New York Times is wondering whether the Democrats will put forth a two-woman ticket. It’s not as crazy as it sounds. The party’s rising stars skew female, the Times points out, and the percentage of people who say they would vote for a woman for president has steadily risen. In 1937, only a third of Americans said they would. By 2012, some polls were returning 95 percent yeses. And for many voters, a more diverse group of candidates makes for a more interesting campaign. In a poll conducted by Emily’s List last year, 49 percent of voters said they would be “more engaged” in the 2016 election if a woman is on the ticket. If that’s the case, what sort of “engagement” might a two-woman ticket bring?

“I am not sure it’s wise,” Senator Dianne Feinstein told the Times. “You want a ticket that represents men and women.” This is a strange statement coming from a woman who is one half of California’s all-female Senate delegation. Feinstein was elected in 1992, the same year as Senator Barbara Boxer, in what was to be the first of many elections dubbed the Year of the Woman. If California voters were comfortable with Boxer and Feinstein representing them in the U.S. Senate 20 years ago — and have reelected them ever since — what makes her think American voters wouldn’t be okay with two women in the White House two years from now?

Feinstein’s reticence speaks to a deeper dynamic about gender and public life in America. Women are in the habit of accepting male candidates as the default and male perspectives as neutral rather than gendered. Women candidates can’t necessarily count on more support from women voters than from men, perhaps because women are used to getting past the question of whether candidates resemble us, and considering instead whether they’ll represent us.

Men — yes, even those who live and vote in the great state of California — have had far less practice. They’re used to being represented by … men. Their presidents have always been men. Congress is 81.5 percent male. The picture in state legislatures isn’t much better. (And this is all in contrast to much more equitable gender balances elsewhere in the world). Yet it’s not just a problem in politics. Even though the majority of moviegoers are women, we get tons of movies with male protagonists because the overwhelmingly male filmmakers assume women will be able to empathize with all types of characters, whereas men will only relate to men. (This dynamic extends to race, too. It’s why the “black best friend” is a rom-com trope — Hollywood assumes that viewers won’t relate to a woman of color in the lead role.)

Social science says that the less privilege you have, the less obsessed with yourself you are. Because you’re not used to seeing your personal characteristics and issues highlighted in politics and pop culture, you’re forced to identify with others (usually people with more privilege and power than you have). You’re used to seeing people who don’t look like you and finding common ground. “Women everywhere tend to think and know more about men’s lives than men do about women,” writes David Graeber in The Guardian, “just as black people know more about white people’s, employees about employers’, and the poor about the rich.” The only way around the relatability problem is to stop assuming men can only relate to male candidates, or that white people can only identify with white protagonists.

The truth is, relatability is an issue that every candidate has to grapple with, regardless of race or gender. Though the polling numbers on general acceptance of women in politics are encouraging, the “would you vote for a woman” question is a hypothetical — much like the discussions of a two-woman ticket. Things get much more complicated when you ask voters how they feel about a living, breathing, specific woman candidate, and especially two. Hillary, let’s not forget, was once considered a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination in 2008. Pundits and voters loved her until the narrative took hold that she was on top, and then the tide turned against her. If both the presidential and vice-presidential nominees are women, they won’t be two faceless female candidates. They’ll have their own complicated narratives to contend with — and sell to voters of all genders.

But, much like the feeling of Hillary’s inevitability before 2008, the dominant story right now is that women are on track to own 2016. The Emily’s List poll found that nearly 75 percent of voters — men and women — think the country will elect a woman president in two years. Sounds like they’re pretty confident they’ll be able to relate to her.

Women Politicians and the Relatability Problem