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By Ashton Pittman
The same day Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced plans to seek the 2020 Democratic nomination, the sexist media narratives of elections gone by staged a comeback in the form of a Politico article highlighting concerns that Warren may share too many “attributes” with Hillary Clinton to be “likable.”
And yet, things were different just two years ago. While Clinton was still busy securing her spot in history as the first woman to win a major party’s nomination, some pundits lamented that the party had not chosen a more likable woman for the historic moment — a woman like, say, Elizabeth Warren.
There are many reasons why likability is a flawed metric for political candidates, men and women alike. But there is something particularly pernicious about the recent trend of evaluating women this way.
“Want a female commander-in-chief? Do you desire an aspirational nominee? How about someone who would bring Wall Street to heel? Elizabeth Warren is all those things, in one person,” Real Clear Politics’ Carl M. Cannon wrote in April 2016.
There are many reasons why likability is a flawed metric for political candidates, men and women alike. But there is something particularly pernicious about the recent trend of evaluating women this way. Research has shown again and again that powerful women are held to different standards than men. The hypocrisy of the likability metric becomes even more clear when you compare the way Warren the potential 2020 candidate is being described with Warren the (less threatening) senator from Massachusetts.
In 2016, Cannon wrote that Warren would indeed bring more warmth than Clinton, pointing to an anecdote she shared on Facebook about how she would bake her mother a “heart shaped cake” as a child. He contrasted that with Clinton’s sarcastic “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies” comment from 1992, which was a response to ongoing questions about why she chose to continue her law practice when her husband was governor of Arkansas.
For some Bernie Sanders supporters, meanwhile, praising Warren was a way to deflect accusations of sexism. In a 2016 Huffington Post opinion piece titled, “I Despise Hillary Clinton And It Has Nothing to Do With Her Gender,” Isaac Saul wrote that he “and many Sanders supporters would vote for Elizabeth Warren if she were in the race over Hillary or Bernie.” (Saul apologized to Clinton for being a “smug young journalist” and “Bernie Bro” in a follow up article months later, writing that his views of her changed after he endeavored to learn more about her history).
So what’s going on here? Has Warren become incredibly unlikable over the past two years? Or is this change more an indication of her growing power. High-achieving women, sociologist Marianne Cooper wrote in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, are judged differently than men because “their very success — and specifically the behaviors that created that success — violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave.” When women act competitively or assertively rather than warm and nurturing, Cooper writes, they “elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine.” As a society, she says, “we are deeply uncomfortable with powerful women. In fact, we don’t often really like them.”
In other words, Warren’s expressed desire to potentially become America’s most powerful politician has changed the calculus. After all, Hillary Clinton was a popular secretary of state; Warren is a popular senator.
Warren’s expressed desire to potentially become America’s most powerful politician has changed the calculus.
Research bears this out. In a study from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, when participants saw women as power-seeking, they “experienced feelings of moral outrage (i.e. contempt, anger, and/or disgust)” toward them and saw them as “less supportive or caring.” When participants saw male politicians as power-seeking, though, that impression instead led them to view the men “as having greater agency (e.g. being more assertive, stronger, and tougher) and greater competence.” Women, in short, were penalized for seeking power, even as men were rewarded for it.
The kind of outrage observed in the study might explain why Clinton’s favorables have always plummeted whenever she announced that she was seeking higher office. Her favorable ratings reached a peak of 67 percent in 1999, only to slump to the mid-40s when she ran for the Senate in 2000. Her favorable rating rose while she was on the job, though, reaching 58 percent in 2007, only to crater back to the 40s again as soon as she announced her 2008 run for president.
In a 2012 Talking Points Memo article, Benjy Sarlin (now a reporter for NBC News) dubbed then-Secretary of State Clinton “badass cool.” Not only did the nation’s top diplomat have a 66 percent favorable rating, she had recently become the subject of a popular meme.
Some, though, had already noticed the pattern and doubted the good times would last.
“The current Internet-fueled lovefest between Hillary and America is probably as doomed as Romeo and Juliet,” The Cut columnist Ann Friedman wrote that December. Sure enough, as talk of a second presidential run heated up, Clinton’s approval began falling again, sinking to 41 percent when she officially joined the race in 2015.
“The more a woman is in service to someone else,” the more likable she is, Clinton explained to NBC News in 2017, describing her work at the State Department as having been “in service to my country” and “in service to our president.” “I was proud to do it,” she said. “But when a woman walks into the arena and says, ‘I’m going in this for myself,’ it really does have a dramatic effect on how people perceive.”
Though Warren was the darling of those who said, “I’d vote for a woman — just not that woman,” she is no stranger to the likability rollercoaster.
When Warren was first running for U.S. Senate in 2012, her favorables lagged behind those of Republican Sen. Scott Brown. Her bid to unseat him was not guaranteed, even in liberal Massachusetts. “Warren and her hectoring, know-it-all style leaves” women disappointed, Democratic analyst Dan Payne wrote at the time, complaining that “all she does in her ads is complain about national problems,” and describing her as “preachy” and “lawyer-like.”
Payne suggested she “lose the granny glasses,” “soften the hair” and get coaching to “deepen her voice, which grates on some.” She should also practice “ a little modesty,” he said, and “stop the finger-wagging” because “it adds to her strict schoolmarm appearance and bossy manner.”
Payne’s screed could easily be mistaken for a satire of misogynistic garbage — but he was serious. What he was really criticizing was Warren’s tone — a metric for measuring likability that women are uniquely subjected to.
In a 2014 Fortune article, CEO Kieran Snyder examined the question of tone in an experiment in which she asked people to submit their employer’s reviews of their job performance. Snyder examined 248 reviews — 105 from men and 75 from women — and found that 58.9 percent of male employees’ reviews included critical feedback, while 87.9 percent of female employees’ reviews did. The results were even more stark when Snyder looked at the kind of criticism men and women received: 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women included criticisms of their tone. Only 2 out of 83 critical reviews received by men included the same criticism, with comments focused mostly on things like the need to hone their strategies or develop their skills.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders’ shouting, finger-wagging style often earned him praise for his “authenticity” and “passion.” Clinton was at times criticized as “passionless” for her “robotic” style, but showing emotion lead to worries that she was “shrill.” When Warren wags her fingers, she doesn’t get to be the passionate, cool old guy like Sanders; men like Payne and GOP strategist Rick Wilson call her a schoolmarm for it.
Likability has long since outlived its speculative usefulness. And there is no clearer an example than Elizabeth Warren’s contradictory treatment in the press. Women do not become unlikable overnight. At this rate, the only likable female president would be one who didn’t want the job.