It’s the end of the first year in the history of the United States in which six women made (mostly) serious runs for the Democratic presidential nomination, just three years after the defeat of the first female nominee. The arrival of multiple women to presidential contention should have been a convulsive shock to a political system.
We have never seen anything like this before. Yet it has been oddly glossed over — how extraordinary, how totally bananas it is to have had six women standing on presidential-nomination debate stages for the past five months.
It’s not that no one noticed! There was plenty of ballyhooing, but most of it actually downplayed the momentousness. “Remarkably, this historic moment doesn’t even seem like a huge deal,” wrote Amanda Sakuma in Vox — and she wasn’t wrong. The media definitely didn’t treat this as if it were a huge deal. Because America is nothing if not self-flattering, and because like Charlie Brown and a football, we are always ready to believe that this time it’s going to be different. “The value of having multiple women candidates is that they force us to think about women candidates in a way that is not monolithic,” Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers told reporters back in February.
The hope went: If there were six different women running for the country’s highest office, it would be far harder to caricature them in all the ways that ambitious women get caricatured: as mean, angry, crazy, elitist, lightweight, and dissembling. As Sakuma optimistically ventured, our “far greater awareness of the sexist overtones of debating a woman’s ‘likability’ … could mean a slightly easier path.”
It is now almost 2020, and here are our female candidates: the Meanie, the Lightweight, the Crazies, and the Angry, Dissembling Elitists.
Sure, some of the descriptors are rooted in reality: After all, plenty of politicians, including the female ones, are unpleasant; a ton of them come to politics from elite spheres, and many represent elite interests; a fair number are pretty eccentric. In fact, I considered often at the start of this protracted season that one of the pleasures of having so many women in the race this time was that I could loathe a couple of them, like a couple of them, and feel relative indifference toward a couple of them: about the same spread of reactions I usually develop to male candidates.
But it is also true that the first woman to drop out, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, paid a gendered price from the outset. The Senate record on which she might have run — her work to end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” address of sexual assault and harassment in the military and on college campuses, winning benefits for 9/11 first responders, being an early and consistent voice of opposition to Trump’s appointees — never even got evaluated; it was blotted out from the start by the fact of her having been the first (of 35!) of her colleagues to ask Al Franken, a powerful and beloved man, to resign in response to allegations of sexual impropriety (a choice for which she’d also once been dubbed Opportunistic, the seventh dwarf of female political personalities).
And in a race with more than one actual billionaire, it’s somehow Elizabeth Warren, who supports a federal wealth tax, and Kamala Harris, only the second black woman senator in this country’s history, who’ve been painted most effectively by their opponents and the press as elitists.
In fact, by many measures, what’s unfolded over the past six months has provided a reminder of exactly how uncool and unevolved we remain about the women who run for president. Most recently, the refresher came in the form of a Times–Siena Poll that found that 41 percent of respondents who supported Joe Biden but not Elizabeth Warren agreed with the statement that “most of the women who run for president ‘just aren’t that likable.’”
Metrics like that wind up getting cited — sometimes silently, in our own brains, very late at night, and sometimes loudly, on television, by confident pundits — in the midst of feverish calculations of how electable each of the Democrats might be. That so much ink has been spilled in 2020 about “electability” — a measure not of how we feel about a candidate but how we’re guessing other people might feel about that candidate — speaks to how we continue to permit the parameters put on female candidates in the past to shape how we view them moving into a future we claim we want to be different, that we like to tell ourselves already is different.
Yet despite all this, initial optimism about how this would surely go better this time wasn’t wholly misplaced. Because so far, while consultants and pundits wring their hands, the women who want to be elected president have been offering up new — and sometimes discomfiting — approaches to communication, making choices that defy old assumptions about the limits of acceptability for female self-presentation.
You can hear it in the jokes. They’re not for the men. In many cases, they’re about men.
That one that Kamala Harris keeps telling? About Donald Trump being a small man? It’s not about the Wizard of Oz. And the way she laughs to herself, regularly, while talking, as if she’s reacting to some private joke. Well, I often suspect that that rumble of steady mirth is her response to her own internal soundtrack, the lines that Harris, who has a famously foul mouth, knows better than to say out loud. When Donald Trump Jr. suggested on Twitter that Harris was the only one to laugh at her jokes, and called her “the most disingenuous person in politics … after Hillary,” Harris tweeted back at him, “You wouldn’t know a joke if one raised you.”
Warren’s got jokes too. After being targeted by right-wing conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl, who provided any candidate’s dream setup by holding a press conference at which he claimed that a 24-year-old Marine had been injured during sex with the 70-year-old Massachusetts senator, Warren chose subtlety, slipping a “Go Cougars” line into an unrelated tweet, and officially in reference to the mascot of her alma mater, the University of Houston.
Of course there is strategic, and often overmanufactured, effort in these kinds of performatively snappy Twitter retorts. Politicians (and their teams) are just doing what most of us on social media all day are trying to do: make strangers laugh at our jokes and, in doing so, like us more. But there are important differences among the candidates in how they’re imagining they might be better liked.
A recent New York Times story examined how Amy Klobuchar, who entered the race under a barrage of negative stories about mistreatment of her staff, has been using humor as a way to humanize and soften her image. Hers, in contrast to Warren’s and Harris’s pointed barbs, is a broader, Borscht Belt–style approach, self-deprecating and cozy, with jokes about raising money from ex-boyfriends, dancing with Trevor Noah, and Donald Trump’s stupid hair. Meanwhile, the kind of jokes being told by Harris and Warren are aggressive in their outreach specifically toward other women. They are resistant to satisfying electoral tastes presumed to be calibrated toward male comfort, as they have historically been.
But the more aggressive approach to making fun — especially of an old order; of powerful men; of traditional expectations for civility and deference, especially from women — is freighted: It can be perilous.
In October, during an LGBTQ forum, Warren was asked what she’d say to someone who believed that marriage was “supposed to be between one man and one woman.” She took a thoughtful beat before replying that she assumed this hypothetical questioner was male, and that she’d tell him that he should feel free to “marry one woman.” Then came a deadlier beat, and … “if he can find one,” followed by a crisp turn and the rubbing together of palms, which reads as Warren’s special signal that she has chomped up and is now digesting her prey.
Lots of people loved it. The clip went viral.
But some people didn’t. Soon, the Washington Post was reporting that Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf heard Warren’s one-liner as a “stab” at those who disagree with her and “a battle cry for men to turn out against” her. The Post piece described her tone while delivering the line as “acerbic,” and former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer called it “insulting.” That Warren was making a joke about a man put it squarely in line with the history of some of presidential campaigning’s best-loved zingers: “You, sir, are no Jack Kennedy.” But that it was a woman, making a crack at the expense of an imagined man’s imagined romantic prospects (he might not be able to find a wife … because he is homophobic), like Harris’s jabs at Trump’s diminutive stature, make the humor particularly combustible — uproarious and resonant for some, inflammatory for others. The reaction recalled the old observation, often attributed to Margaret Atwood, that while women are afraid that men will kill them, men are afraid that women will laugh at them.
And maybe it’s that reaction — of men who really, really don’t like to be laughed at, or criticized — that prepared the ground for what was going to be an inevitable attack on Warren, who speaks often of her fury at inequity and her commitment to fighting hard: that she was angry. In a bad way.
That attack became direct last week, when Biden published a post on Medium in which he responded to one of Warren’s sharper digs at him (that the more moderate former vice-president is “running in the wrong primary”) by claiming her approach is “angry and unyielding.” In the days since, Biden has been questioned about his characterization and keeps returning to references to Warren’s “elitist attitude,” which, when applied to a woman, isn’t even a dog whistle for “bitch,” because it’s actually just audible to human ears.
Biden isn’t alone in his suggestion that Warren transmits a kind of troubling pugilism; Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who recently suggested that he views himself and Warren in a two-person race for the nomination, has also taken to suggesting that she is “so absorbed in the fighting that it is as though fighting were the purpose.”
Buttigieg was directing this rhetoric at Warren, but were she currently polling better and therefore perceived as a serious threat to him, he might also have been taking aim at Harris, whose reputation, perhaps even more than Warren’s, is tied to her willingness to voice dissatisfaction or critique. A former prosecutor, Harris is known for public sparring, with witnesses and rivals, a reputation that is especially fraught since she is a black woman, to whom stereotypes of militant fury cling all too readily and damagingly.
In fact, after Harris memorably challenged Biden on his record on busing during a July debate — and crucially during her resulting surge, when she was perceived as a threat by her rivals and the political media — she was labeled by the conservative Washington Times “the Angry Black Presidential Candidate” in a column that suggested that Harris is “angry at everyone who doesn’t think like her (and even a few, like Mr. Biden, who mostly do).” The columnist Matt Bai lamented that she “doesn’t radiate much optimism” and suggested that “her attack on Biden reflected, in both substance and tone, the mood of her party, which is fueled by a sense of identity-based injustice and contempt for President Trump’s America.”
The casting of powerful women, especially those who open their mouth in rebuke or criticism, as worryingly angry or aggressive is of course all part of a very old playbook on how to discredit them by rendering them unappealing, unattractive, disruptive, and altogether unlikable. It is true, as Steve Kornacki has noted, that male candidates have in the past also been described as angry in negative ways, but critical coverage of male anger has often centered on their well-documented, frequently indisputable interpersonal styles — Bernie Sanders gets dinged for yelling; John McCain had a legendarily short temper.
But even the men who’ve got reputations for being grumpy or vindictive can use their anger on the stump in ways that have proved far more difficult for women: The anger male candidates express on behalf of their constituents or beliefs — their professional passion — can more easily be received as a sign of their strength, commitment, and even patriotism. But the charge that a woman is “angry” about politics or issues can be reverse engineered: swiftly stripped of the substance and context of what she’s actually said, leaving only the residue of a thing we’ve all been trained since birth to find suspect in women, a disagreeable temperament.
Notably, both Warren and Harris have worked throughout this campaign to make any allegations of their personally angry natures ring weird and empty: They have strived, like every presidential candidate, to amplify their warmth, and they’ve done so with great success. Harris, who loves food, has been going to people’s homes and cooking them meals, dancing with children, and laughing at her own jokes. Warren stands for hours on photo lines, pinkie-swears with little girls, so far refuses to yell back at her rivals for the Democratic nomination, and often comes off as more effusive and peppy than even her companion Bailey, who is literally a golden retriever.
It is extra rich that Biden would remark on Warren being somehow prone to unyielding fury given the tenor of their most recent debate exchange: While he furiously gestured at her, yelling that he’d been the one responsible for wrangling the votes she needed to build her Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Warren somehow managed to simply stare ahead at the middle distance and smile. (This reaction, while silent and polite, was in its own way a conscious gesture to the many generations of women who have had to remain calm while being bellowed at by men trying to take credit for their achievements.)
That exchange contained an undertone of expectation, one that also undergirded the response to Harris in the wake of the July busing exchange: the expectation of gratitude. In the days that followed the busing debate, Biden’s team gave interviews noting how strongly the former vice-president had supported Harris’s early political career. Biden himself said that in future debates, “I’m not going to be as polite … because this is the same person who asked me to come to California and nominate her in her convention.”
If women ask for more than what’s been made available to them, let alone if they demand more, they must be reminded of all they’ve already been given. This is of course a trap for women candidates whose very job is to demand more: more actual authority to enact change. Yet the presentational imperatives thrown at them by those who frame their stories are sometimes not so far off from the demands of ordinary street harassment; back in 2016, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough chided Hillary Clinton, giving a loudly impassioned speech after a primary victory: “Smile. You just had a big night.”
It’s quite a communicative bind: To challenge male competitors, or to passionately advocate for a set of policies and ideas, is to be cast as angry; to deploy humor that laughs at presumptions of male authority is to be emasculating; yet to just shut up and smile at every turn will not, in fact, win anyone the presidency. And if female candidates work too obviously to maneuver around these icebergs, if they try too hard to hit some nonexistent sweet spot of female strong-but-not-threatening public expression, they’ll be promptly written off as inauthentic.
It would be easy to conclude that these women are screwed from every expressive angle.
Except. That what the Bidens and Buttigiegs and much of the political press seem not yet attuned to — as they prognosticate about how other people are receiving these candidates — is that those other people may be changing too; that it’s not just old ears listening to these new candidates; it’s not just old assumptions holding the same suffocating power that they always have. It’s not just some women candidates who are, indeed, angry and fighting against the continued rise of a punitive Republican Party currently led by Donald Trump; it’s lots of the people who they need to persuade to come out to vote for them and actively work on their behalf, people who voted women and Democrats into office in record numbers in 2018.
And the leading female presidential contenders seem undaunted in their pursuit of that energy and engagement, refusing to back away from aggressive self-presentation. At the end of the Iowa Liberty and Justice Dinner, which Buttigieg opened with a finger-wagging speech about candidates who fight just for the sake of fighting, Harris came out and said, in a very well-received speech, “Justice is on the ballot, so it is time that we fight.” Warren was even more pointed, citing voters struggling with economic challenge and racism who, she noted, “are already in a fight … and those fights are all our fights. Anyone who comes on this stage and doesn’t understand that we’re already in a fight is not the person who is going to win that fight.”
Make no mistake, here in 2019, where we like to tell ourselves that it’s no big deal to have multiple women in a presidential contest, it’s a genuine gamble to buck expectations for female comportment, to respond vigorously to male rebuke or show a lack of deference. Just ask Gillibrand, whose challenge to male authority has left her reputation linked, for now at least, to a single press conference she gave two years ago. Or for that matter, consider how long Warren was dogged by criticism for not having endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016.
On Friday, in an apparent response to Biden’s “angry and unyielding” commentary, the Warren campaign sent out an email that began, “Over and over again, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry … And it’s not just women … we are told that everyone with less power should be quiet … Well, I am angry and I own it.” It’s not a new message for Warren, who was giving speeches about owning anger and using it to win back the House and Senate more than a year ago during the Kavanaugh hearings. But there’s no question that she’s doubling down. NBC’s Deepa Shivaram reported on Monday that in response to further questions about Biden’s characterization of her, Warren suggested that questions about sexism get directed to the men instead of just the female candidates, noting that “we” — a reference to a collective fury she sees herself giving voice to — “are strong and we have strong views. When people are getting cheated, it makes us angry.” She also turned the suggestion that she should smile more into a punch line, which was received with laughter.
Warren is taking a bet, and given this country’s history, it’s an awfully uncertain one: She’s betting that the metrics of likability — and thus the metrics of possibility for candidates who are not male — can be altered. Rather than being cowed into retreat from fury, she’s asserting it. As Shivaram herself noted on Twitter, Warren has space to take this kind of gamble that Harris, as a black woman, doesn’t have, but still, Harris is right there with her, leaning into a professionally combative public presentation.
Whether it works for them individually, whether it works electorally, may not be the only salient question when it comes to a broader view of how presidential politics is changing with regard to gender. Even if they both lose, and for that matter, even if one of them wins — the nomination, the White House — what’s changing in terms of our perception of female candidates is real … but the pace is glacial. We’re in the midst of a process that entails unwinding two and a half centuries of bias and assumption, doing the slow and painstaking work of dismantling, as Joe Biden might say, attitudes.