The 2020 presidential election is still many months away, but it has already made history for the record-breaking number of women candidates who are running. So far, six women have officially declared their candidacies for the highest office: Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Sen, Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Marianne Williamson.
These women can learn from Hillary Clinton’s experience as a woman presidential candidate, and the media should too. During the 2016 election, Clinton was subjected to sexist media coverage. From her hair and makeup choices to her cough during a press conference, Clinton’s personal identity, more so than her political one, was incessantly examined and critiqued. Candidates who are men however are rarely asked to defend their suits or their health.
Following the wave of women elected to Congress in the midterm election, one would hope media coverage would become more equal and fairly representative. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case; the field of women presidential candidates is already on the defensive.
A defining characteristic of sexist coverage is its focus details of women irrelevant to their ability to govern the nation. Gillibrand, an accomplished Senator and vocal advocate for gender equality, was laughed at by the media for starting to eat fried chicken with a fork and knife. The biggest story about Klobuchar is that she once ate a salad with a plastic comb, never mind that migrant children have died while in the custody of Trump’s Border Patrol.
Women also face a second, more covert hurdle in their journey to winning an election: they must be likeable. This expectation ensnares successful women in all professions who are described as too cold, too mean, and too outside the model of “women” society deemed to be appropriate.
America is deeply uncomfortable with powerful women: women who unapologetically have ambition, women who decide to tell their own stories. Clinton’s approval ratings were highest when she served President Obama as Secretary of State, but they then plummeted when she lead a campaign of her own.
Politico published an article with the title “Warren battles the ghosts of Clinton” with the tagline on Twitter, “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux—written off as too unlikeable before her campaign gets off the ground?” Warren has been labeled as “cold” and “shrill” for being invested in the details of policy and speaking with passion. These are qualities the American people do want in a president, but only if that president is a man. On the other end, Gillibrand was asked at her first campaign press event if “being nice” would be her selling point during the 2020 election. Harris has a record of asking tough questions during Senate hearings: will she be too assertive and too tough?
Women are entirely capable of leading the country. We are not unlikeable, aggressive, too soft, or too mean. We are fierce, intelligent, compassionate, and dedicated—everything that the U.S. needs right now.