For politicians, making people like them is part of the job. But for politicians who are also women, “likability” can be an especially fraught, front-and-center part of the job.
This week, we’re talking about what it means to be “likable.” And Rebecca Traister tells the story of a woman who captures all the predicaments of political likability better than almost anyone: Pat Schroeder, the former congresswoman from Colorado.
Two things are true of Pat: First, she was a very successful politician, who was in Washington for a long time and got a lot done. Second, she could never escape the question of likability … and all the contradictions that come with being a woman, being a leader, and being liked. Here’s some of what Rebecca had to say.
She was known for having this really cutting sense of humor … People always asked her, How are you going to balance your work, your work as a politician and as a mom, because she had young children when she went, went to Congress. And she’d say, “I have a brain and a uterus, and they both work.” But that was kind of challenging. She was known sometimes as the Wicked Witch of the West, and sometimes as the Wicked Bitch of the West. So when she would crack back at people, she believed that that contributed to, um, a vision of her as fundamentally unable to take it, or being hostile. And I was shocked, because I hear these jokes, and I’m like Pat Schroeder is hilarious!
She also was quite famous for being incredibly cheerful, smiling. When she signed her name, she would put smiley faces in her signature, and sort of used girlish language around things. Like she was, she was very smiley. Now, here’s one of the ironies about that. She was also, um, criticized by young feminist journalists, for being too girlish. She was, she was criticized for being too aggressive within her caucus, for being too sharp with her humor, for being a smart aleck, and also for being too sweet and feminine.
This gets to the heart of the question of how can women be likable? Can they be likable, especially when they’re in positions of political power, or might want greater positions of political power? Can they be admired for being tough, or are they hard and grimacing? Can they be liked for being approachable and friendly, or are they lightweights? And what if they are both … HOW DO YOU WIN?
To hear about the moment from Pat Schoeder’s career that Rebecca’s been thinking about for 32 years, click above and subscribe wherever you listen.