Drink a beer with a woman?
By Jean Godden
Likeability is the big issue on the national political scene these days. Pundits are viewing the ever-growing field of Democratic candidates for the presidency and speculating on their "likeability." Can a candidate appeal enough -- be liked enough -- to be elected?
One thing that stands out in the presidential derby is that the 17 or more male Democratic candidates have higher likeability numbers than the six women candidates. Women in the race all have face image problems.
They say Sen. Elizabeth Warren is "too wonkish." They flaw Sen. Amy Klobuchar as "too mean." Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor and attorney general, must defend a record. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand suffers from a pro-gun past; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is saddled with a dubious foreign policy and Oprah spiritual guru Marianne Williamson relies heavily on positive thinking.
In other words, there are questions about how much voters "like" the women candidates. This same likeability factor weighed heavily against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton when she ran against Donald Trump. Yet Trump, surprisingly enough, managed to get elected despite a distinct lack of charm. Would you want to "have a beer" with The Donald? What would you say to a man who brags about abuse of women?
Likeability is an odd standard. And female politicians are particularly burdened when it comes to achieving high marks. Part of the reason is garden variety sexism -- the everyday put down of women, the idea that they're okay if they "know their place."
It's really a double bind: women can be liked or competent, but rarely both. If a woman is tough and assertive, she won't be liked. If she's friendly and approachable, she's apt to be considered ineffective. All this goes back to the fact of what we have been trained to know what leadership looks like. Is a leader male or female? And are women who aspire to be leaders somehow different?
Likeability in politics is associated with an emotional connection between candidates and voters; it's what makes a politician click. What would it mean if we could reinvent what it is that makes a candidate likeable? Suppose likeability was no longer who you'd want to "have a beer with" but instead someone whom you can depend on to do the work.
In this city and state, we are already beginning to reshape our standards. When it comes to electability, we have managed to elect two women senators, half of our congressional delegation and the majority of our Supreme Court justices. We've had two women governors and we continue to elect numbers of women legislators and mayors. We're not only electing more women; we're electing more diverse women. In this state at least, women have gained enough likeability to achieve that elusive leadership factor.
Meanwhile, the amazing success of women candidates in the congressional midterms is a sign that this might be underway on the national level as well as here on the local level. In 2018, people went to the polls and turned to a new kind of member of Congress: women of widely diverse backgrounds, young women and women of color.
If American voters can learn to like and trust women in Congress in record numbers, maybe they can contemplate backing women as presidential candidates. And maybe they can even like them.