Maya Taha / Gavel Media

Burden of the Female Politician

In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman nominated by any major political party. The midterm elections for the 116th Congress resulted in a record-breaking 127 women elected to the House and Senate, including a remarkable number of minorities never previously represented. Six women within the Democratic Party have recently announced their candidacy for the 2020 presidential election. There is no doubt that women are making historic strides in the world of politics. The influx of women in the male-dominated sphere of public office has also magnified the heavy burden they carry. Female politicians are subject to criticisms and sexist double-standards that male politician never encounters.

Every female politician walks a tightrope created by a double bind. If she is assertive or outspoken, she is praised for her intelligence but deemed as insensitive, aggressive, and altogether unlikeable as a candidate. If she is candid about her accomplishments and qualifications, the media will characterize her as egocentric. On the other end of the spectrum, if a female candidate is warm and compassionate, she is perceived as less intelligent, emotional, and unable to handle a position of leadership. Characteristics that society defines as “feminine” are often associated with a lack of competence and reason. Showing emotion is equated with being irrational or illogical. To see these gender stereotypes in play, one need look no further than the Brett Kavanaugh hearings from this past fall. If Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had raised her voice one pitch, her credibility probably would have been challenged more than it already was. Meanwhile, Brett Kavanaugh’s screaming, contorted face circulated the news with the narrative that he was “passionately” defending himself.

The double bind exists at almost every level on which women are scrutinized, including appearances. Despite the fact that clothing and hairstyles have nothing to do with policies and platforms, Angela Merkel’s neckline, Michelle Obama’s arms, and Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits seem to always make the headlines over what they have to offer intellectually. Appearing too masculine is frowned upon, but if they express any sort of femininity they are hyper-sexualized by the media. In addition, a woman’s ideas can immediately be delegitimized by someone criticizing her appearance. Female candidates are held to these impossible standards, constantly caught between been “too much” of something or “not enough” of something else.

Every successful woman can attest to being asked how they made the choice between career and family, a question that men are rarely asked because they simply aren’t expected to make that choice. Being a wife and mother is one of the major societal expectations of what it means to be a woman. In the world of politics, women have little choice but to convince the public that they are leaders as well as homemakers. Female candidates who are mothers are expected to devote equal amounts of time and energy to raising their children as they are to campaigning. This double standard puts them at a serious disadvantage, as there simply aren’t enough hours in a day to be a martyr mom and run a full-time campaign. If they place their priorities as a mother above political aspirations, then they are forced to spend less time and energy challenging male counterparts. If they do the opposite, or are unmarried without kids, then they are mom-shamed and deemed unrelatable.

In her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton presented her role as a mother and grandmother as a central pillar in her platform. She conveyed that motherhood heavily influenced her political beliefs and the resolutions she made to voters, such as affordable child care and paid family leave. Although this groundbreaking part of her platform resonated with many female voters, it also alienated both men and women without children, who claimed she was exploiting her role as a mother purely for political gains. In an attempt to reassociate motherhood with credibility and strength, Clinton, like so many other women, became caught in this double bind.

Female politicians have no choice but to prove to the public that they can always do both. They can be a supermom and a devoted public servant. They can be assertive and always have a smile on their face. They can be both feminine and masculine. Because of these nearly impossible standards, it seems that the odds are always against female politicians. No matter what, they will be subject to misogyny and sexist criticisms. Although strides continue to be made, the burden that female politicians shoulder is one glass ceiling far from being shattered.