You can try to minimize it, but it’s going to happen. You’re all set to go on the radio and talk about your plan to fix your city’s economy, and a voter is going to call in and complain that they didn’t hear a word you said thanks to the croaking of your vocal fry. Or worse, you’re going to get caught shouting. And then there’s your appearance. Your hair is too short or too long. You’re wearing too much makeup, or not enough. Your suits aren’t professional, or maybe they have no personality. Or your clothes are too perfect — how are you going to solve all these problems if you spend so much time thinking about how you look?
Or maybe you brace for these slights by being exceptionally well prepared — and are greeted by people wondering where they are supposed to find the authentic you under all this competence.
You’re a woman running for office, and there are just some things you can’t win.
Of course, it’s not just women who’re targeted this way in politics — Howard Dean screamed, Chris Christie was made fun of for his weight, search parties went out looking for the “real” Mitt Romney. If you’re a female candidate for public office, however, there’s probably more of a chance that you’ll fill up your candidate complaint bingo card, especially the higher you climb.
Those women who have run for president have completed the entire board — although it’s not clear what prize Hillary Clinton gets for being a person who “shouts,” and is fake, shrill, bitter, too polished, not feminine, and bitchy. And, as Elspeth Reeve noted at The New Republic, if Clinton manages to erase any of these awful adjectives from her biography — an ethereal stew of feelings amassed and edited over the years, Wikipedia-style — new and equally unfortunate ones pop up like Whac-a-Moles to take their place. Sometimes Clinton’s surrogates rush out to defend her in equally unhelpful ways, as when Gloria Steinem argued that young women were supporting her opponent because “the boys are with Bernie” — words that employ the same lazy shorthand that female candidates have been dealing with to insult female voters.
Add, on top of all this, that Clinton, like all politicians, has to juggle the fact that many people disagree bitterly with her policies and political history — and that she hasn’t managed to gain enough experience along the way to become an exceptionally adept retail politician. It’s a lot to handle.
“I really do have great empathy for what Mrs. Clinton is going through, because the hill that she has to climb on — appearance — it’s just a different hill than men have to climb,” Michele Bachmann, who once said she wanted to be the “anti-Hillary,” told The Huffington Post last month. “I’m not whining about it. It’s just reality.”
If you’re a woman thinking about getting into politics — not the presidency, at least not yet, but, say, a city council seat — how do you prepare yourself for that reality?
“That is the question,” says Susannah Wellford of Running Start. “Young women look at politics and think, ‘Why would I ever go into something where I would get scrutinized so heavily?’”
Running Start is a program that works with teenagers and twentysomethings, trying to convince them to run for office when they’re still young — most of the first women to enter politics only managed to make time for it after a life of doing something else, a model that doesn’t give women much time to climb the ladder. Wellford warns students at her annual conference what they’re in for right away, in her first speech. “You are going to get judged. You’re not going to avoid it, no matter how hard you try to do everything perfectly.”
Another program, IGNITE, works with low-income high schoolers and college students, mainly Hispanic and African-American women, to raise political engagement levels in California, Texas, and Colorado. Many of the girls have already internalized gender stereotypes, being told at home that they don’t need to pay attention to current events or read newspapers, Texas director Margo McClinton Stoglin says. Once they realize that they are more than capable of running for office, the students sometimes have to learn that there is a lot more to being a politician than they’ve seen on TV. One student in Fort Worth jubilantly declared that she wanted to run for mayor because she’d be so good at kissing babies and cutting ribbons.
There is a whole ecosystem of programs like this, designed to help female candidates at the local, state, and federal level learn how to fundraise, canvass, and develop confidence about their political chances — while also steeling them for the unavoidable difficulties of campaigning.
Unfortunately, none of the programs have discovered any secret fixes.
“Not denying that it’s definitely hard,” Brette McSweeney at Eleanor’s Legacy, which holds daylong workshops for women running for office in New York. “Life is not fair,” Patti Russo, at the nonpartisan Women’s Campaign School at Yale, says. “Get over it, and be prepared.”
“There’s no woman equivalent of Uncle Joe,” Jess McIntosh at Emily’s List adds.
All advise growing a thick skin, having a sense of humor — and an aversion to comments sections. The central recommendation is just ignoring any slurs that come your way, in favor of focusing on your platform. If you’re running, you’ll probably be good at talking about the issues anyway — studies show that women have to be more qualified to win elections.
Terri Hauser at the National Federation of Republican Women says that she tells women hesitant to run — worried that there are more qualified people who would be better suited to the role, or that they’ll never be able to raise enough money — that no one will fight for the issues they care about better than them. She adds, “If you don’t do it, you’ll always think about the ‘what if.’”
Consultant Kate Coyne-McCoy tells women if they ever encounter a particularly nasty person when walking door-to-door searching for votes, they should say thank you, silently fart, and walk away.
The women who attend these workshops, McSweeney adds, “are certainly aware of what they’ll deal with.” It’s not like these problems suddenly appear when you declare your candidacy. You deal with them in the workplace, or when you’re walking on the street, or just existing every day. After you win, the comments don’t go away, either, as women who have been in Congress for years can attest.
Maybe most crucially, these programs also make sure to provide access to politicians who have been dealing with things outside their control for years. The playbook for women politicians is still missing a few chapters, McIntosh notes. “I feel for Hillary Clinton,” she says. “She has no book.
“But the next woman is going to get to talk to her.”
Getting those next women to run still isn’t easy — especially when you have to be upfront about the pitfalls, and the most visible example of highly ambitious women in politics to point to is Hillary Clinton, who has been pouring Sisyphean effort into a campaign for a decade and has yet to reap any rewards. Women currently make up 20 percent of Congress and 24 percent of state legislatures. There are six female governors.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, says she still hears women cite the 2008 election as a reason to be wary of political life, with comments like, “I saw what happened to Hillary and Sarah Palin. I’m not putting my family through that.” If Clinton suffers a similarly “brutal” fate this year, Walsh says the same worries could persist for another eight years. On the other hand, if she wins, young women all over will, finally, get to see a president who looks more like them.
The Center for American Women and Politics recently bought up hundreds of copies of a children’s book titled Grace for President and sent them to every female governor, member of Congress, and state legislator, with a request that they pass them on to elementary-student constituents. In the book, which is inspired by a question asked by a nonfictional preschooler, a young girl named Grace notices that all the presidents whose pictures are hanging in her classroom are men. She runs for office at her school against a boy who says he is the “best man for the job,” who campaigns far less tirelessly. She wins.
The book ends with her growing up and becoming President of the United States — although it skips all the drudgery that it probably took to get there.