Are powerful women likable?

OK, a lot of people found Hillary Clinton hard to like. But three more women gained the spotlight this week, and guess what? They’re unlikable too. Maybe there’s a problem here we need to look at.

Maybe there really was some unique I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it thing about Hillary Clinton that put people off. Sure, she was whip-smart, had a boatload of executive and legislative experience, could stand up to 11 hours of hostile questioning, and had put forward an impressive collection of policies she wanted to implement if she got elected, but … you know. There was just something about her that made voters uncomfortable.

Maybe it was her voice, or her hair, or the way she dressed. She was just too … something. If that many people had said that many bad things about her over the years, there must have been some fire under all that smoke, right? And behind closed doors, she was supposed to have a temper. I know, John McCain’s temper was part of his charm — he was fiery and passionate sometimes, you know — but Hillary’s temper was so … we can’t say bitchy any more, can we? But you know what I mean. It was different.

OK, let’s give people a mulligan for Hillary. And let’s give another mulligan to the people who couldn’t possibly be racist, but some ineffable something about Barack Obama just felt wrong to them. He just wasn’t like the rest of us — not because he was black, of course. Lots of people are black. But … you know. And if he claimed to be an American-born Christian, didn’t that seem kind of fishy somehow? How could we trust somebody like … well, like that, whatever “that” means.

Honestly, I’m starting to get my own ideas about what sounds fishy here, but let’s not dwell on the past. Let’s talk about now. Let’s talk about Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. All three of them have been making news lately, and they’ve all been running into unusual levels of hostility. Each of them, in her own way, has some indescribable quality that raises a lot of people’s ire.

What could it possibly be?

It’s not incompetence. Nancy Pelosi is the most talented legislator of our time. She has no real competition for that title.

When she was Speaker before, the House got stuff done. Appropriations bills got passed on time. She not only saved ObamaCare, but passed a bunch of Obama’s other progressive proposals (most of which died in the Senate).

As soon as the Democrats lost their majority in the House, everybody suddenly realized that the Speakership is a hard job. Even if you lead a partisan majority, holding it together well enough to pass an agenda takes real skill. John Boehner couldn’t do it. Paul Ryan couldn’t go it. Again and again, they would fail to get a proposal to the floor, or miscount votes and see a bill fail unexpectedly. (To this day, a Republican healthcare bill with positive content hasn’t even been drafted, much less voted on or passed.) Deals they thought they had negotiated fell apart at the last minute. Boehner just barely avoided pushing the United States into a self-inflicted financial disaster.

The Speakership is hard, unless you do it backwards and in heels like Pelosi does. Then it looks easy.

When LBJ and Sam Rayburn were the masters of Congress, their skills were appreciated even by many who disagreed with their goals. Phrases like “wheeler-dealer” and “arm-twister” got used with a certain amount of admiration. But it’s hard to imagine applying descriptors like that to a woman. Instead, she (and not Chuck Schumer) was the villain of GOP campaign ads across the country. Her own party seriously discussed not letting her be Speaker again if they regained the majority. (Schumer, meanwhile, lost seats in the Senate and was not challenged.)

It’s not inauthenticity. One complaint about Hillary Clinton was that she just wanted to be president and didn’t stand for anything. But Elizabeth Warren’s political career has a definite theme: Capitalism needs to be regulated to keep big corporations from running over ordinary people.

After the crash of 2008, Warren left a cushy position at Harvard Law School and entered public life because she wanted to protect consumers from the predations of the big banks. She ran for the Senate in 2012 because Republican opposition in the Senate made it impossible to get the job she had wanted: head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (whose creation she had overseen). In the Senate, she has been a leading voice against the concentration of corporate power.

She has the working-class biography to back up her sympathies with ordinary people. Rather than being tracked for high positions early in life (like, say, Brett Kavanaugh), she came from a working-class family and her career developed slowly: She left college to get married, then followed her husband as his career took him to Houston and New Jersey. She finished a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and  taught public-school children with learning disabilities. She interrupted that career to be an at-home mother, then later went back to school in law. She started out doing legal services from her home, then started teaching, and rose in academic ranks as an expert in laws related to bankruptcy. Eventually she got to the top of the academic heap: tenure at Harvard.

When Clinton, a centrist woman, seemed like the inevitable nominee in 2016, there was a groundswell among progressives for Warren to challenge her. Only after she refused to run did Bernie Sanders get into the race and lead progressive Democrats.

So announcing her presidential candidacy for the 2020 nomination raises one obvious question of substance: Just how much regulation does capitalism need? If you’d rather talk politics, you still have a number of interesting questions to choose from: Can she recover the support of the progressives who turned to Sanders in 2016? Can the Sanders/Warren wing of the party win this time? Can she get more support from blacks and centrists than Bernie got in 2016? And so on.

Instead, Politico raised this question:

How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?

Politically, it’s hard to see much resemblance between Warren and Clinton, except for this: Both of them are women who saw their unfavorability ratings spike when they started to look like serious candidates. Clinton herself explained it this way:

It’s always amusing to me that when I have a job, I have really high approval ratings; when I’m actually doing the work, I get reelected with 67 percent of the vote running for reelection in the Senate. When I’m secretary of state, I have [a] 66 percent approval rating. And then I seek a job, I run for a job, and all of the discredited negativity comes out again, and all of these arguments and attacks start up.

It’s not a lack of passion and vitality. Another criticism of Clinton (which sometimes also gets said about Warren, though I don’t understand why) was that she seemed cold. But if you want a politician who is the opposite of cold, I’ve got one for you: new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But strangely, she also has been a target of public ire.

Since upsetting a member of the House Democratic leadership in a primary and then winning his seat in the general election, Ocasio-Cortez has been targeted both for being too poor and for not being as poor as she’s supposed to be. Predictably, the too-rich criticism was based on her clothes: “That jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.”

When Paul Ryan came to Congress, he was a “young gun”; his youth was evidence of how extraordinary he must be, to get so far so fast. But AOC’s youth just points to her being a lightweight, because there’s no female equivalent of a “young gun”.

This week, we learned of a new AOC outrage: She and her friends made a dance video in college. Unlike, say, Melania Trump or Scott Brown, she kept her clothes on, but still the video is supposed to be embarrassing for some reason. My main reaction is that this video is a trivial thing that shouldn’t evoke anything more than a trivial response; mine is that college-age Alexandria looks like somebody college-age me would have wanted to go out with (assuming away the time-travel problem). But you can judge for yourself.

Somehow, though, conservatives looked at that video and saw something scandalous. I think this tells us more about them than about AOC. As Paul Krugman put it: “The mere thought of having a young, articulate, telegenic nonwhite woman serve is driving many on the right mad.”

If just being young and nonwhite were the problem, that would be one thing. But in the context of Clinton, Pelosi, and Warren, we see that being older and white doesn’t protect a woman either. The specifics of a woman’s life and character may shape how she gets disparaged, but her unique characteristics are not why she gets disparaged.

People are starting to notice. Robby Mook may have exaggerated a little about the reaction to Warren’s announcement video, but he wasn’t exactly making this up, either.

Last 24 hours shows Trump’s 2020 path to victory:
-Dem candidate releases video that explains her background, values, vision and policies
-it never mentions Trump;
-Trump responds with childish insult;
-Media only covers insult.
All process, all on Trump’s terms. No Dem message.

Maybe Trump and the press will do that with every Democratic candidate. But I also think it works better, and the media is more complicit, against women.

Peter Beinart, I think, has this right: The facts that an article cites about Warren may be true, but still contribute to a false narrative.

Mentioning the right’s attacks on Warren plus her low approval ratings while citing her “very liberal record” and the controversy surrounding her alleged Native American heritage implies a causal relationship between these facts. Warren is a lefty who has made controversial ancestral claims. Ergo, Republicans attack her, and many Americans don’t like her very much. But that equation is misleading. …

There’s nothing wrong with journalists discussing public perceptions of a candidate. The problem is that when journalists ignore what academic research and recent history teach us about gender’s role in shaping those perceptions, they imply—whether they mean to or not—that Warren’s unpopularity can be explained by factors unique to her. They start with the puzzle of her low approval ratings and then, working backward, end up suggesting that her policy views or (pseudo) scandals explain them.

… Journalists shouldn’t ignore electability. Elizabeth Warren’s comparatively low approval ratings are a legitimate news story. But the bigger story is that Americans still judge women politicians far more harshly than they judge their male competitors. Unless journalists name that unfairness, they risk perpetuating it.

“I would have voted for the woman who isn’t running.” As the 2020 campaign proceeds, other women are likely to emerge as serious candidates. (Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, perhaps.) We can hope that the sheer multiplicity of targets will disperse the misogynistic fire. But here’s a wild guess on my part: Whichever one is polling last will get the most favorable coverage. In 2004, when she wasn’t running, many voices pined for Hillary Clinton, only to turn against her in 2008 and 2016, when she was actually on the ballot. Likewise in 2016, people who were voting against Clinton often claimed they could have supported Warren, if only she had run. But where are they now?

The Republican Party has a similar dynamic around blacks. At some point in the process, there’s a boomlet for a black candidate like Colin Powell, Herman Cain, or Ben Carson. But these waves always fade before any votes get cast. Having given cover to people who will never actually vote for a black, the candidacies have served their purpose.

We can’t let that happen in 2020. “I would have voted for a woman” isn’t an excuse any more. Do or don’t, but what you would have done in some alternate reality doesn’t matter.

For the most part, this kind of prejudice is structural and unconscious. “Woman politician” has become a category in people’s heads; it seems natural to treat them differently than male politicians, as if a political office changes when a woman holds it. (There has been a similar phenomenon in sports: For a long time “black quarterback” seemed to be a category of its own. Any new black quarterback would invariably draw comparisons to previous black quarterbacks, and be judged accordingly. Cam Newton came into the NFL as a tall, strong quarterback with speed and a powerful arm, but somehow John Elway was never the comparison that popped into commentators’ minds.)

As Pelosi’s speakership, Ocasio-Cortez’ congressional service, and the 2020 campaign continue, we’re going to have to monitor this constantly, both in the media and in our own minds.

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  • Valerie L'Herrou (@vlherrou)  On January 7, 2019 at 11:12 am

    thanks for this! I read things written by men about women with a huge amount of suspicion, but you’ve definitely hit the nail on the head here. We need more men to speak up in this way, without any reservation.

  • Nancy Banks  On January 7, 2019 at 11:38 am


  • Robert C. WORTMAN  On January 7, 2019 at 11:48 am

    A totally phony issue! View the rapidly changing composition of the current Democratic Congress. As for the distinctions between current female Congresspeople, it has nothing to do with their gender, but rather with whether they are NEOLIBERAL or not. Hillary was and is. Pelosi was and is (completely attached at the hip to her Rolodex and her Wall Street connections for her power). Warren upholds working class people of all genders, as does AOC. It’s a matter of class and the utility of continuing Capitalism as it now functions..

    • George Washington, Jr.  On January 7, 2019 at 12:04 pm

      That doesn’t explain the hostility toward Warren and AOC, since they’re not neoliberals or connected to Wall Street.

      • Robert C. WORTMAN  On January 7, 2019 at 2:47 pm

        Suggest that you broaden your view from the myopiv vista (only) of The Weekly Sift. Try This on for size:

        Talking About Elizabeth Warren’s Likability Is a Way to Tell Women to Sit Down and Shut Up

        Danielle Tcholakian, The Daily Beast
        Tcholakian writes: “All conversations about the ‘likability’ of a political candidate are sexist, and to claim otherwise is to out oneself as a sexist hiding behind the gauziest veil of cover.”
        READ MORE

    • Dale Moses  On January 8, 2019 at 2:53 am

      Neither Clinton nor Pelosi are or were Neoliberal.

      Except insomuch as it means “i dont like them” rather than relating to any cogent policy goal or ideological basis for their policy

      • Guest  On January 10, 2019 at 2:05 pm

        You’re very wrong here, Dale. The Clintons might be as close to textbook American neoliberal as you can get. Granted, the term has become something a slur (for good reason), but you’ve got a political blind spot if you think that it both doesn’t mean anything substantive and that it doesn’t apply to Clinton (or other corporate, right-leaning Dems). If you’re looking for a place to start, check out Ryan Cooper’s piece in The Week from this time last year, titled “The decline and fall of neoliberalism in the Democratic party.”

        But WORTMAN’S episode points to some unique challenges of sexism for liberals. Those further left, being mostly proud feminists, can point to great reasons to reject a Hillary Clinton based on policies, track record, and odds of winning a nationwide election, but in doing so be less responsive to actual sexist forces working against her. For the right-leaning or establishment democrats supporting Clinton, they can be very in-tune to those sexist forces, but in doing so be less responsive to the actual, critical problems with Clinton’s policies and how they do not resonate not just with leftists but with moderates and undecideds.

      • Dale Moses  On January 12, 2019 at 1:58 pm

        I bad read Ryan Coopers peice and it was terrible. It does not understand either neoliberlaism (which is an extension of classical liberalsim) nor did it understand third way democrats (which was a response to Mondale and the Unions abandonment of the party for Reagan) nor does it understand the ideological underpinning of the democratic party in general over the past 70 years.

        Also Hillary had one of the most feminist records in congress. No one should have been angry with her about that except sexists

  • Brian Douglas  On January 7, 2019 at 11:50 am

    The Republican Party, aided by the conservative media savaged the Clintons since the early 90’s and built up a false narrative of Hillary as “a bitch”. They have used the same tactic with Pelosi and now Warren. Of course there is a double standard, as the article points out. I recall the criticism of Nixon being a “SOB – but at least he’s our SOB.” It was said in an admiring way to indicate that Nixon was not someone the Soviets could take advantage of. A woman would not be afforded the same pass.

    • jh  On January 8, 2019 at 4:42 pm

      It’s a conservative cultural mindset where they view women seeking power as evil. It’s also pervaded into the broader cultural milieu as well. (It’s probably from Eve being the source of all evil rather than a human being who was tricked by a supernatural being. In contrast, Adam was fooled by … someone who was his equal. By my estimation, that makes Adam an idiot.)

      Why is a loser like Trump or a career politician man viewed as favorable rather than power hungry? Why aren’t they held to the same high standards that women are routinely held to? Why aren’t they described in terms of their looks or their age as often as the lies they tell?

      I said this way back to my fellow liberals who claimed that HRC was evil. I said this – Hillary Clinton has been investigated repeatedly for thirty years. She’s either an evil genius or she’s innocent. The sad thing was that even people who ascribed to general liberal values and the Democrat party fell for the republican nonsense. That’s the great tragedy about America. Even liberals fall for this conservative nonsense.

      Mud sticks to women in a way that it doesn’t stick to men. It’s easy to create a witch. (And look at all the stories we have in our culture. How many positive archetypes of women do we have? Compare them to “the seductress”, the “power hungry whore”, “the slut”, “the bimbo”, “the naive fool” and so on.)

      I’d add this one point. We have a saying “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. But I’d say that Haagan Daz containers of ice cream have more to fear from a scorned woman than any man. In contrast, a man who is scorned is likely to kill the woman, kill other people a la incel attacks, sexually assault the woman, or post revenge porn. This is the crux of the problem. Patriarchal societies have set up norms where there is no way for a woman to be a hero. And there’s always an excuse or social context that insulates the man from his actions.

  • Rick Rubin  On January 7, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    I agree with your general premise, strong women are not valued in this culture. I’m married to a strong woman and helped raise three daughters who are all strong women and I’ve seen them struggle at times with how the culture of this country can treat them. That being said I voted reluctantly for Hillary Clinton, not because she is a strong woman but because of her ties to Wall Street and her hawkish talk about preemptive war. I held my nose and voted for her because Trump was/is a disaster. I’ll happily vote for Warren or any other woman candidate who challenges the status quo and shows me she’s not groveling for Wall Street money. I apply the same standards to any man running for office.

    • weeklysift  On January 7, 2019 at 12:51 pm

      My point isn’t that there aren’t legitimate reasons to oppose this woman or that one. But it’s easy for unconscious misogyny to hide behind legit reasons, so we need to scrutinize our responses.

  • Bill Dysons  On January 7, 2019 at 12:40 pm

    I’m a first time commenter, long time reader. My perspective is as a white progressive male living in conservative South Carolina who is very much integrated into the local business community.

    I’d like to ask you about how you think the phenomenon of conservative women plays into your thoughts on powerful women. For example, in my state, Nikki Haley is probably the most popular politician we’ve ever had in my lifetime (I’m 51). Conservatives here are strongly supportive of her running for president in 2024 and generally love both her and Trump.

    From my viewpoint, conservatives tend to love conservative women more than conservative men and hate liberal women more than liberal men. The few conservative women in my state who are major players in business and government are adored – but they’re definitely not liberal people. Is there a way to sort out the difference between hatred for someone like AOC as being sourced in sexism vs. anti-liberalism? (I can see a regression analysis being done here – what percentage of AOC hatred can be attributed to each factor!) I may be naive on this, but I really have a hard time seeing the hatred of AOC, Warren, etc., as anything other than anti-liberalism. As someone steeped in conservative culture everyday, I think I can say with some authority that when a conservative calls a female politician a “bitch,” you can pretty much guarantee that this politician is liberal.

    • weeklysift  On January 7, 2019 at 1:01 pm

      Conservative women do make a more complicated question, similar to conservative nonwhites like Dinesh D’Souza. I think both are beloved for exactly as long as they repeat the points of the white patriarchy. I wonder how popular Haley would be if she continued to be conservative in an economic and foreign-policy way, but took even one feminist position.

      Over the years, Hillary Clinton tried to court the center in a variety of ways, but it never got her out of the target crosshairs.

      • Bill Dysons  On January 7, 2019 at 3:46 pm

        I don’t think Haley believes in the white patriarchy. She believes in an authoritarian leadership style that has historically been dominated by white men. The difference between Haley and a sexist is that a sexist believes that only a man can be qualified to be the authoritarian leader, while Haley thinks a woman can do the job too. I think “conservative feminism” is the process of eliminating the sexist (or racial) prejudice from conservative voters who historically would only elect a man to be an authoritarian leader. So it’s possible to have a non-sexist conservative movement that is completely at odds with liberal democracy. This is my prediction for where the U.S. conservative movement will be in 100 years.

      • Dale Moses  On January 8, 2019 at 3:19 am

        Re: Bill Dysons.

        A sexist doesnt necessarily believe “only a man can do the job” a sexist could also support institutions and norms which enforce domination over the other sex. Or they could ascribe likeability to qualities which they associate with a particular gender only when they see them in the appropriate gender. A demure man is weak; a demure woman is proper. A strong man is powerful; a strong woman is dangerous.

        Haley believes in and supports a system that is dominated by white males. Her presence does not undermine it but rather reinforces it. Which is obviously palatable to a lot of sexists. It also conforms to the way in which a lot of other sexists believe women should act and this increases the likeability.

        There is also simply the issue of our lopsided media. Democrats are more scrupulous in their attacks on polticians and the media is more than willing to do the heavy lifting for Republicans.

        The aswer for liberal women is probably that they have to play the game the way Obama played it. Which was… to more or less be the “good one” and hope that its enough.(there is an excellent post somewhere on this blog about how Hillary lost ground by explicitly calling for racial justice which Obama had avoided or pushed back on in favor of almost chiding of the “black community”.)

    • Moz of Yarramulla  On January 7, 2019 at 8:48 pm

      From down under that’s an interesting point. I’m used to the idea that minority conservatives have to be more conservative than the majority ones (minority meaning “not rich straight white old men”), but maybe less so in the USA?

      Australia has Julie Bishop who seems to disprove the idea at least here, she was never likeable enough for the conservative wing of the conservative party*, but on the other hand Aotearoa’s first female leader was Jenny Shipley for the conservative party (National). OTOH we have had many lower-level woman elected to leadership roles, so perhaps the conservatives are less unhappy as long as there’s a man at the top of the heap “she can be governor, but never president”?

      But as far as likeability goes… the current prime minister of Aotearoa makes AOC seem quite restrained 🙂 Who knew the UN had a “bring your baby to work” policy?

      * who are called the Liberal Party, despite being neither liberal nor conservative.

      • Moz of Yarramulla  On January 7, 2019 at 9:29 pm

        (sorry, didn’t expect the link to embed like that)

    • Guest  On January 10, 2019 at 2:11 pm

      Thanks for your perspective, Bill, I hope we hear more from you!

  • Laura Lallos  On January 7, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    I usually love your posts, so I’m sorry that my first comment to you is something negative. But I had to comment on this bit from today’s post:

    “My main reaction is that college-age Alexandria looks like somebody college-age me would have wanted to go out with, (assuming away the time-travel problem).”

    Kudos to AOC: this guy finds her dateable! That’ll show those GOP critics questioning her ability to govern.

    The irony is jarring.

    • weeklysift  On January 7, 2019 at 12:53 pm

      My point is that the dance video doesn’t say anything one way or the other about her ability to govern. It’s a trivial thing, and I have a trivial response to it. (I just edited the text to make that clearer.)

      BTW, I think a lot of people’s first comments are negative. I hope you’ll keep commenting.

      • The Serapion Brotherhood  On January 7, 2019 at 9:36 pm

        My comments are mostly negative, because disagreements is a lot stronger impetus to take the trouble to comment, but I read this blog every week since I generally agree with it.

  • Josh  On January 7, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    In fairness, the comparison of Pelosi to Schumer is a bit apples to oranges given how bad the Senate map was for the Democrats last year.

  • Lori Flanagan  On January 7, 2019 at 2:09 pm

    Speaking of societal misogony, I shared this on Facebook and the only photo it put with it is the Young Guns. I tried Xing just the photo box before posting but after posting that’s the photo with the article. Of all the graphics in the post the only one I can get to go public is the one of 3 white men.

    • weeklysift  On January 11, 2019 at 10:13 am

      I had the same experience. I’ve never figured out how Facebook picks which picture to share.

  • Alan  On January 7, 2019 at 3:15 pm

    I can’t identify any of the representatives for neighboring districts in my state. I suspect most people are the same. So why is the right getting so worked up over somebody from a random liberal district in New York? I think it’s the same reason I like her: she’s moving the Overton Window left. That is a real danger for them. She’s in the perfect position: she’s charismatic and in a safe district.

    • Guest  On January 10, 2019 at 2:25 pm

      You’re not the only one who loves that AOC’s moving the Overton Window left, Alan! I’m fascinated that mainstream media has given her as much oxygen as they have. They typically completely ignore or mischaracterize and brush away anything as progressive as she’s shown. I don’t have a response to cynics that say that she’s only getting this much airtime because of the sheer power of her charisma and the “high school popularity contest” side of politics, and I also have a creeping suspicion that if she was an eligible presidential candidate for 2020 they would be treating her very differently. But in the meantime she’s passionately articulating progressive values, perspectives, and solutions. I hope she keeps pushing!

  • Barb Mantegani  On January 7, 2019 at 4:13 pm

    This is the best discussion of the issue I have ever read, and thanks for the link to the “scandalous” video. Even as a Boston College grad I loved it!

  • KJR  On January 8, 2019 at 2:57 pm

    Good points, all. Even as a longtime Feminist I have had to deal with my internal misogyny in looking at women and leadership. If you look at the UUA you might notice that every time a (usually better qualified) woman ran against a man for President, the man won. I admit, that I unwisely voted for some of the winners. I actually switched from Bernie to Hillary in the last election cycle when I saw so much misogyny on the left. I reassessed my emphasis on which strengths were important to me, and Hillary’s longtime devotion to the well-being of the women of the world plus her superior legislative skills won me over.

  • reverendsax  On January 9, 2019 at 8:29 am

    Then there’s Angela.

  • L. D. Dewees  On January 11, 2019 at 2:38 am

    Nancy Pelosi is fine. I just worry she’ll cut off the progressives, like she’s already done to the Green New Deal or whatever they’re calling it. Being a great leader is a good thing, but not if she’s leading us in the wrong direction.

    Definitely, the woman haters were out to get Clinton and I’m sure Warren is going to get a lot of that crap as well. I just think Pelosi has a problem more related to policy than to gender.


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