Column: So many female presidential candidates, so many sexist double standards
On Tuesday morning, the day after Democratic U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris made her presidential bid official, a fledgling birther conspiracy about her began to take wing on Twitter.
Harris, who happens to be the child of immigrants, was born in Oakland.
Which, you know, is in America.
To some voters, I guess she seems exotic* because she is biracial, the child of an Indian mother and Jamaican father. (*Exotic: Not like us.)
We live in a country where racism refuses to die, but Harris’ big challenge is not going to be the color of her skin.
We’ve already proven we can elect a black president. Heck, we’ve already proven we can elect a black, first-term United States senator as president.
But Barack Obama was a man.
Harris’ challenge will be the same one facing some of the others who have announced their candidacies: U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. It is the same insurmountable obstacle that faced Hillary Clinton in 2008 when she lost the Democratic nomination to Obama.
Harris is a woman.
Like other candidates, Harris will be judged on her record. She will be challenged from the left to explain some of her perceived failures: Why, as California attorney general, did she not prosecute OneWest Bank, whose CEO was future Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, for what her own office described as thousands of foreclosure law violations? Why, as the state’s top prosecutor, did she refuse to allow DNA testing of a California death row inmate who may be innocent?
But mostly, she will be judged on how she walks the fine line between sounding tough and acting nice. She’ll be judged — often unconsciously — on how she speaks, how she interacts with people, and of course, how she looks. (Even Obama, who really should have known better, could not resist calling her “by far, the best looking attorney general in the country” at a 2013 fundraiser.)
Will Harris be deemed “likable enough,” the casual insult Obama flung at Hillary in 2008?
Or will she be undercut with the all-purpose slur that is used against women who are assertive enough to want to be president and narcissistic enough to believe they can win?
You know the one.
It rhymes with witch.
I spent a lot of time during the 2016 campaign and its aftermath thinking about why so many people hated Hillary Clinton.
By any measure — honesty, trustworthiness, integrity, experience, maturity — she towers over the man who beat her.
I know what you are thinking: But her emails! Her lost and found Rose Law Firm files! Her Chicago cattle futures windfall! Her Monica Lewinsky smears!
And to that, I would answer: Yes! She was a flawed candidate with a ton of baggage and a tendency, like all presidential candidates, to shade the truth. (She also got some very bad breaks — an army of Russian trolls spreading lies about her, and a self-serving FBI director whose pointless disclosures hurt her campaign at the end.)
But I am comparing her to Donald Trump, who lies almost as easily as he breathes, who cheated on his wife with a porn star and a Playmate, then tried to buy their silence using his attorney, who has been sentenced to three years in prison for his role in the scandal.
I’m comparing her to Donald Trump, who is vicious and petty, who has been accused of defrauding innocent “students” at his faux university, who makes a habit of not paying his bills, whose businesses have been driven into bankruptcy numerous times.
I’m comparing her to a man whose close relationship with Russia so alarmed the FBI that it considered investigating whether he is a Russian agent.
And yet throughout the 2016 campaign, one of the loudest refrains about Clinton was as simplistic as it was sexist: “I just don’t like her.”
The “likability” trap ensnares high-achieving women in all professions. “As descriptions like ‘Ice Queen’ and ‘Ballbuster’ can attest, we are deeply uncomfortable with powerful women,” wrote the sociologist Marianne Cooper in the Harvard Business Review in 2013. “In fact, we often don’t really like them.”
Democrats will be fielding a record number of women, all of whom, it appears, are already serving in Congress. None is a political novice. They understand the forces they are up against, but I am willing to bet they are all in for a shock or two.
Still, I propose an ongoing thought experiment for all of us who are watching the buildup to the 2020 presidential campaign with a mixture of excitement and dread.
If you hear negative things about a female candidate, ask yourself if the same critique would apply to a man.
Or consider whether the woman in question has been trashed so often by conservative media outlets/Facebook/Twitter/comedians that you have simply internalized the antipathy without questioning it. This, I firmly believe, is what happened to Hillary Clinton, who has been the object of conservative scorn for so long that it is an article of Republican faith that she’s a liar.
Bear in mind that women are usually penalized for thinking they are the best choice for a top job — or for asking for more money or better assignments.
I’m not saying the world will be a better place when a woman can stand in the spotlight at a nominating convention as Trump did, and declare, “I alone can fix it.”
Or when she can feel free to demean a war hero.
Or boast about grabbing men’s private parts.
I’m just saying the next time you think you don’t like a particular woman candidate but can’t put your finger on why, the reason might be your own unexamined bias.