The high point of drama during last week’s Democratic presidential debate was the public sparring between Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The two progressive candidates engaged in a heated “he said”, “no, I didn’t” exchange about a private conversation they had in 2018. According to Warren, Sanders had said that a woman could not win the presidency, a claim that Sanders vigorously denied.
I find it sad, and both surprising and entirely predictable, that the question of female electability still shadows US presidential politics. For Americans today, a polarised political landscape filled with anger, anxiety and irony shrouds the question of women leaders and their electability. An openly misogynistic man who is a poster child for toxic masculinity holds the highest political office in the country even as the growing #MeToo movement has raised awareness of the problems of sexual harassment and assault. The 2018 midterm elections brought record numbers of women into the House and Senate, many determined to resist and push back the tides of racist and xenophobic nationalism represented by Trump. In a televised spectacle filled with irony, President Trump praised the record number of women in Congress at a State of the Union address following the elections. In a celebratory response, female lawmakers, many newly elected on a platform of resistance to Trump, applauded and danced in the white suits they had worn to honour the suffrage movement.
The question of whether a woman can successfully win her way to the presidency is one that many liberal Americans are thinking about these days, even if it makes them uncomfortable to do so. Polls show many Americans are skeptical about whether a woman can win the election, even as they express support for the idea of a woman president. The urgency of defeating Trump in the next elections encourages a pragmatic approach to the choice of Democratic nominee–if women are disadvantaged in their electability, it is best to steer away from them for the moment. The highest priority is to capture the presidency and rescue the country from the rollbacks of civil and human rights that will come from another Trump term.
Despite the historic wins of women in the 2018 congressional elections, the US lags behind globally on the legislative representation of women. From Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde, a growing number of countries have elected women heads. To date, the US has not done so. Varied national political structures, especially with respect to systems that guide the selection of candidates to run for office, undergird these differences. Gender quotas for elective office do not exist in the US, unlike in many parts of the world where they have opened doors for women and given them access to political connections. Parliamentary systems also enable women to work their way up the party hierarchy into positions of leadership without being subject to the gender biases of the voting public.
In South Asia, where women leaders are highly visible, dynastic politics has enabled the political ascension of women. That is, women have come into power through their family ties and identities. Family connections confer legitimacy and authority through what sociologist Max Weber calls “hereditary charisma” or the transmission of charismatic authority through family lines. In unstable political systems, a dynastic choice may also be favoured as a strategy to prevent fighting among political factions.
Let us come back to the US, where neither quota systems nor dynastic politics are especially relevant. What makes it difficult for some Americans to support or imagine a Madam POTUS in 2021? Individual image and personality play a key role in US presidential elections. Women presidential candidates face the unenviable task of conveying strength, authority and capability while not violating the norms of femininity. In what appears as a Catch-22, women who project themselves as authoritative and capable face condemnation as overly ambitious, aggressive, manipulative and unlikeable women.
However, if the image dilemmas faced by women political leaders in the US are formidable, they are also surmountable, especially for those with the right kind of resources and biographies. I have recently been fascinated by the public persona of Nancy Pelosi, the first woman in US history to hold the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives. Backed by her many years of experience as a legislator, Speaker Pelosi projects herself as a shrewd and tough “don’t mess with me” mother who will get the job done and protect those under her care. She skillfully draws on the cultural trope of motherhood to assert the legitimacy of her power and authority. She has even gone so far as to rebuke President Trump in a way that reduced him to the status of a difficult toddler. In response to a meeting with the President in which he stormed out in anger, Pelosi wryly noted that she was a mother of five and grandmother of nine, and that she knew a temper tantrum when she saw one.
To be sure, there is not one single cultural script for how women leaders can and do balance their authority with the gender expectations of the broader public. Right now, it is up to women leaders themselves to carve out their own unique paths and strategies for doing so. Ultimately, I remain hopeful about the prospect of a Madam POTUS in the very near future because of the growing numbers of women who are willing to take up this very challenge. Refusing to give in to self-fulfilling notions of lesser female electability, women in the US have entered into the political fray in record numbers. By doing so, they chip away at the entrenched culture of hostility and suspicion towards women in power.
Nazli Kibria is Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Boston University.