In the 240 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, 13 women have sought to become President of the United States, but only one has succeeded in becoming a major party’s nominee. Regardless of the outcome of the election this November, or one’s political views, a barrier has been broken for future generations of American women. As the 2016 campaign has unfolded, gender dynamics have unsurprisingly been omnipresent in conversations and debate nationwide. At its core, a question looms: Can a woman be presidential?
The answer to this question appears to be yes, since a woman has in fact been named the nominee of the Democratic Party. However, the typical traits associated with leadership – decisiveness, command, confidence, assertiveness – are traditionally considered masculine traits. On the other hand, traditionally feminine traits, such as being nurturing or nice, are not often the qualities the public looks for in a leader. Another challenge facing women, as noted by Valerie Sperling, a professor of political science at Clark University, is that “[w]hen women are being commanding, decisive, rational or strong, they come off as not being feminine enough.” The task then for many women becomes balancing their hard and soft qualities to successfully project the image of a leader.
In fact, throughout the campaign, Hillary Clinton’s masculinity, and lack of femininity, has been associated with her likeability problems. Clinton is tough, ambitious, resilient and independent, and she has been criticized for not sufficiently exhibiting the nice and nurturing qualities expected of women (whether consciously or subconsciously). Here, we find “the old conundrum – where a man is called assertive, a woman is called bossy, if not labeled a bitch.” To make Clinton more accessible and feminine, the campaign has showed her as a mother and grandmother.
A perfect example is Chelsea Clinton’s introduction at the Democratic National Convention, where she referred to her mother almost exclusively in her capacity as a mother and grandmother (and even a daughter at the end). One particularly compelling anecdote was when Clinton would go on business trips, for each day she was away she would leave a dated note in a drawer for Chelsea to read. However, while we require this softer side of women, we do not of men. Further, if a man happens to display feminine traits, it often enhances his position, while a woman displaying too much masculinity endangers her position. As Barbara Kellerman, a lecturer in public leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School wrote, “[w]e don’t really have much of a sense of how a woman should look when they’re in power.” As a result, for a woman to fit into the overwhelmingly masculine paradigm of leadership, she must successfully perform a delicate balancing act.
This idea of walking the line between being too masculine and too feminine is not limited to politics. A recent Washington Post article noted that female high school debaters face similar criticisms in debate tournaments as Clinton has throughout her campaign. Of the score sheets reviewed, female debaters received point deductions in areas their male counterparts did not – for example, their shoes (“flats, no heels?”) and their voice (“screechy”). Having been a high school debater, I remember receiving similar comments, including about my appearance and monitoring the level of emotion in my voice.
This is a challenge that women face when they aspire to lead. The difficulty of achieving this perfect balance is illustrated by the low number of seats held by women in Congress. Currently, 19% of the 535 seats in the U.S. Congress and 20% of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate are held by women. (Interestingly, this lack of progress is largely a U.S. issue. Outside of the United States there have been over 70 female prime ministers and presidents in the world since Sri Lanka elected Sirimavo Banadaranaike in 1960. Worth consideration is why female leadership has been more predominant outside of the United States.) While progress continues to being made, there is still a long way to go. What it means to be a leader needs to change, which requires unraveling the bind between masculinity and leadership to allow room for a broader vision of what it means to be a leader.
Some researchers believe that Clinton has the ability to upend some of this deep-rooted gender bias due to her long political career and success as a leader. Interestingly, aside from gender, in many ways she does not deviate from the traditional qualities associated with leadership. Whether or not Hillary Clinton succeeds in the upcoming election, her candidacy is a watershed moment that dismantles the masculine presidential paradigm and shows that women, as much as men, can be presidential.
Jennifer Roeske is an associate in Debevoise’s New York office.
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