Time for soul-searching. During the recent U.S. Democratic Party presidential debates, I’ve been harder on the five credible female candidates (sorry, not sorry, Marianne Williamson) than on their male competitors. I worry that Kamala Harris frowns too much. I wince when Elizabeth Warren looks awkward. I find Kirsten Gillibrand’s false eyelashes distracting. I’m abashed that Amy Klobuchar reminds me of a committee organizer who wishes she got more credit for the work she does. I instantly relegated Tulsi Gabbard to an also-ran. All this, even though I desperately want a female U.S. president, and fear I won’t see one in my lifetime.
So until the election in November, 2020, I want to delve into why. In this next year, when more women will run for elected office than ever before, I want to examine how the traditional and social media reinforce my skepticism. I want to realize how much I and my colleagues have (gulp) internalized the patriarchy, and I want to stop doing it.
Because it’s everywhere. Just listen to how women and men alike dismiss the entire idea: “Americans will never vote for a woman against Donald Trump.” We must stop saying that, because guess what, they already did: Hillary Clinton handily beat him in the popular vote, and did so despite a pervasive, woefully wrong-headed idea that her bad qualities were somehow equal to his bad qualities.
Looking back, I remember how often pundits complained about one thing: Ms. Clinton’s voice. An insignificant detail, made significant. She sounded “shrill,” like a scold, like a teacher they once had. The Rush Limbaughs and Tucker Carlsons went much farther – over and over, they snorted about how hearing her made them cross their legs, made their genitals shrink. Those boys must have had some mean mommies.
Now, watching the first set of debates, I scrolled Twitter while Ms. Harris scorched Joe Biden for his record on busing. Everyone agreed, she was besting him. Then she laughed.
Instantly, this tweet popped up, from a man: “Uh-oh. That laugh, though.” More of the same followed: “Not sure I can listen to that for four years.” “Now she looks mean.” It called to mind that infamous psychological finding: that women fear a man will kill them, while men fear a woman will laugh at them.
In the second set of debates, though, now Harris didn’t smile enough. Over and over, I read and heard that she looked angry, critical, unpleasant, tired. The postgame gang on CNN discussed how defensive she was – while giving a pass to Mr. Biden for “having to be on” the defensive. Everyone asked Ms. Harris how she felt when Mr. Biden said, “Go easy on me, kid.” (Quite correctly, she replied that what he said didn’t matter; she knew why she was on that stage.) Yet I heard no one ask him why he said it.
About Ms. Gabbard, it fascinates me that people say, “She is scary,” rather than, “What she says is scary.” As if she summons a collective memory of that athletic girl in junior high who could beat up the boys. On the flip side, Ms. Gillibrand is dismissed for being too Chardonnay-blonde, not scary enough.
And forget wardrobe; a woman will never win there. People accused Ms. Warren and Ms. Klobuchar of being safe and twinsy because both wore a red jacket over black shirts and pants – while precisely no one noted that most of the men dressed alike. Even as vocal a Democrat as Stephen Colbert mocked only one look: Ms. Gabbard’s white suit.
Mostly, I’m puzzled by my own reaction to Ms. Warren. Because in so many ways, she’s the candidate I would invent if I could. She’s fiercely smart and thoroughly experienced. She has a plan for everything and I agree with most of them. She’s humane, she has vision and she knows how to articulate it: “Why run for president just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for?” she asked. She forcefully called out CNN for basing their questions on Republican talking points, and she cut through the health-care debate with the point that all her colleagues should be hammering home: “We are the Democrats, we are not trying to take away health care. Republicans are doing that.” I should be cheering.
And yet. Above, when I typed “called out," I almost typed “scolded.” I fret over her chicken arms, her teacher-lady tics. I’m concerned about how she blinks.
Why do I do this? Is it because the media I’ve consumed in the past 50 years has taught even me, a lifelong feminist, to doubt and diminish women, to overlook their strengths and be overly aware of their flaws? Yes. Is it long past time to stop doing that, and instead, to view this election and these candidates through a new lens? Yes. Yes. Yes.