“Women have a harder time than men establishing
their credibility as candidates, because our traditional images of political
leadership are male (along with our traditional images of trial lawyers and
neurosurgeons)….Men are presumed to be competent; women must prove they're
competent…. Voters want candidates who will fight for them, but women who
present themselves as fighters are likely to be considered strident, at best,
or bitchy…. In addition to these general credibility problems (which seem to be
lessening), women candidates also cite particular, familiar manifestations of
bias. They commonly complain that the press pays too much attention to a
woman's appearance. Josie Heath, a 1990 and 1992 Democratic senatorial
candidate from Colorado, notes that she can describe her wardrobe by reading
her campaign clips.”— Wendy Kaminer, “Crashing the Locker Room,” The Atlantic
Monthly, July 1992
“It is harder to be a public woman in America than a
public man, and harder to be a female candidate. The challenges they face are
practical, emotional, even existential. Practical: No one gets a lot of lot of
sleep on the trail, but a woman has to get up an hour earlier for makeup, hair,
to choose what to wear and get it together. If she doesn't, they'll say she
looks bad. Emotional: We are a crueler country every year, thanks in part to
the internet, where women are the objects not of more hate but of sicker
hate—brute, sexual, anonymous. Existential: people often experience what a
woman says and what a man says differently. They just do.”—Peggy Noonan, “The
Odd Way We Announce for President Now,” The
Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19-20, 2019
With her symbolically chosen announcement on Martin
Luther King Jr.’s birthday, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) (pictured) joins three other female candidates—Elizabeth
Warren, Kristen Gillibrand and Tulsi Gabbard—in the race for the Democratic
nomination for President. Wouldn’t it be something if one of the quartet,
nearly a century after women gained the right to vote, finally broke through the
biggest glass ceiling of all?
Don’t bet on it.
I know what you’re thinking: More than a
quarter-century after the prematurely proclaimed “Year of the Woman” of 1992,
women are set to make their presence felt on Capitol Hill in unprecedented
numbers. Following the 2018 midterm elections, more than 100 women will, for
the first time, serve in the House of Representatives, with 131 in both
chambers of Congress. The incoming class is sizable enough to have rated a
recent 16-page special supplement in The New
But female politicians at the national level still unconscionably lag
badly behind their male counterparts: Not simply in the lack of progress
relative to other countries that have had female heads of government (notably,
Great Britain, Israel, and Germany), but also as a percentage of seats held in
the House of Representatives (only about a fourth).
More dismaying, I couldn’t help noting in coming
across the articles by Wendy Kaminer and Peggy Noonan, is the hard-core
persistence of image problems afflicting female candidates. It’s a point in
common, over the span of 27 years, between Kaminer, a liberal lawyer (even a
longtime ACLU member) and critic, and Noonan, a conservative speechwriter for
Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
James Carville once famously defined politics as “show
business for ugly people,” but women seem oddly exempt from that in the current
political environment. They are not allowed to be physically flawed at all.
If Women of a Certain Age on the political stage
elect not to have plastic surgery, they are said to look old. If they do have plastic surgery, they are said
to look suspiciously young-looking. Let it be noted that most of the people
doing most of this “saying” are Men of a Certain Age that are probably more in need of cosmetic enhancement themselves.
It’s as if the prejudices these men recite remain
obdurate, even encrusted, even as times and people have changed—or are supposed
to have done so, at least.
Just how ingrained these instincts might be can be
seen in the 2016 Presidential election. In the run-up to the bitter and baffling
finale between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a close relative of mine said
that Mrs. Clinton, unlike Trump, looked tired. The same could not be said for
her rival, my relative said.
This type of observation might be forgotten now,
with the former Democratic nominee having made enough appearances in the
midterms with her husband that many in her party heartily wished that the
couple would just go away.
But in 2016, it was very much a live issue, with
Trump suggesting that Mrs. Clinton had “low energy” and lacked “the mental and
physical stamina to take on ISIS, and all the many adversaries we face.”
In vain did I argue with my relative that Trump may
have looked so fresh because he didn’t bother to stay up reading position
papers and that he traveled on his own jet with every conceivable creature
comfort. In contrast, Mrs. Clinton had maintained a punishing schedule as
Secretary of State.
But my relative’s speculations coincided, unhappily,
with Mrs. Clinton’s appearance at a 9/11 memorial commemoration in 2016 in
which she had to be walked away after feeling sick. The subsequent pneumonia
diagnosis seemed to confirm to those already not well-disposed toward her not
only that, as Trump charged, she had “low energy,” but even to the more
gullible members of the electorate (the kind that read The National Enquirer and Alex Jones) that she had an advanced case
of Parkinson’s Disease. (Funny how all that talk has dissipated nearly 2½ years
later, isn’t it?)
Coming as it did after such slash-and-burn tactics,
Mrs. Clinton’s loss that fall was bound to gall her female supporters anyway.
But the fact that she lost to someone who, right on camera, admitted to groping
women—i.e., sexual assault—also seems to have fed much of the fury of the
Rather than “draining the swamp” in Washington, as
promised during the campaign, President Trump had actually only given greater
prominence to one of the most reptilian creatures in our nation’s capital: The
Washington Male. The late political commentator, war correspondent, and editor Michael
Kelly memorably defined the species in a December 1996 column for The New Republic:
“The Washington Male is the reason so many
Washington females have that drawn, pained expression all the time. It comes
from having dinner with Washington Males….There’s no kidding about it, either:
The Washington Male has absolutely and profoundly no sense of humor.”
His pep-rallies out in the American Heartland to the
contrary, the President is far more acclimated to Washington than he has ever
let on. In his unending humorlessness, he has found common cause with the
More important, because he is constitutionally incapable of
taking a joke, he perceives threats everywhere and will take
action against the slightest threat to his authority—a bellicose personality in
permanent danger of creating a crisis, not to mention a leader ready to crush
all opposition to those who regard him as a grave threat to the Constitution.
Yet his base ignores all of this, just as they
blithely ignore the very things in Donald Trump—low energy, visible signs of
aging—for which they attack female politicians, usually on social media.
One of the women subject to such carping over the last
several years has been Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Not content to label her a “San
Francisco Democrat” of leftist orientation, conservatives have also made the 78-year-old politico a convenient
target for ageism.
I can’t say I’m a fan of many of her policies, but I
definitely have to tip my hat to the lady now. This past week, she managed to
do what 16 rivals in the GOP primaries (15 of them male), Sen. Mitch McConnell,
and Ms. Pelosi’s predecessor as Speaker, Paul Ryan, never managed to do: Bring
the tantrum-throwing Twitterer in Chief to heel.
“Women candidates have stories to tell different
from men's,” writes Ms. Kaminer, “because, like it or not, they represent to
voters different visions of authority and different values.” The temptation,
after the results of last fall, is to believe that, for an electorate desperate
to wipe the slate of American politics clean, that may be women candidates’
But Ms. Pelosi presents a more realistic
possibility. Along with the instinct that any Speaker must have—a sense of how
many votes are on hand for a bill—Ms. Pelosi demonstrated, in the recent
protracted government shutdown, a keen ability to play upon the tender male ego—in
this case, a male ego who couldn’t abide the idea of not using Congress as a backdrop
for his State of the Union message. Ms. Pelosi attributed Trump’s forcing of the
government shutdown over the border wall with Mexico—and his stubborn, even
childish resistance to a compromise on it—to a “manhood thing.”
As of now, Trump’s “manhood” is undergoing what Seinfeld’s hapless George Costanza
called “shrinkage.” Female candidates, please take note: Playing upon such
anxieties among male opponents may be your best road map to success.