The underlying sexism of “electability” politics

Ava Liponis, Columnist

The 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary began with a gender diverse field of candidates only four years after the first female presidential candidate was nominated by the Democratic Party. I mean, it’s no secret that women in politics get the short end of the stick — Politico published a piece in 2018 that claimed Washington Democrats consider Elizabeth Warren too much like Hillary Clinton to beat Trump. Electability was the main drive of Joe Biden’s campaign in its early days, yet it seems the question of whether candidates are “likable” or “electable” have different meanings for female politicians. 

“Likability” doesn’t evaluate the popularity of the candidate — if it did, the likability of candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris wouldn’t be up for debate, considering their popularity with key voting blocs. Instead, likability focuses on reactions to candidates, rendering stereotypical gender biases into statistical talking points. Carly Fiorina was told to smile more, otherwise, she wouldn’t be nominated. Hillary Clinton was told she shouts too much in debates and doesn’t have the ‘presidential look’. Andy Barr claimed feminism made Amy McGrath unfit to be a representative.

As Bonnie Morris put it, “Quite a few belligerent and unattractive men have been accepted as global leaders. It seems it’s fine when men are brusque and domineering. Women are cast in the home as a diplomat or a hostess: you’re expected to be a conduit between personalities and not have one that sticks out yourself.” 

When women are assertive, powerful and ambitious — all qualities necessary to be president — they are often perceived as unlikable. As Hillary Clinton said in April 2017 when asked to reflect on the election, “The more successful and therefore ambitious a woman is, the less likable she becomes.”

“Electability”  is based on who we have elected in the past. We draw our notions of electability from a homogeneous data pool, and our expectation of who can win the presidential election is derived from our knowledge of who has won in the past. A heavy emphasis on electability encourages candidates who aren’t historically represented in office to either not run in the first place or run only while downplaying their personal identities. Because of this under-representation in government, female candidates are held to outdated and oftentimes toxic expectations, to which their male counterparts are never held. 

Simultaneously, women are put in a double-bind: if they call out sexism, they look like a victim, and no one wants a victim as their leader. She is unable to react to her oppression because her expressions of emotion are amplified by her femininity. Our collective imagination of who can be president remains stunted by a reluctance either to accept female leaders as sufficiently masculine to fit this role or to envision the presidency in less strictly masculine terms. The paradigm of likability is merely a socially acceptable container for socially unacceptable bias and a mass gaslighting of our female politicians.