When Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1917, her fellow legislators lauded what she brought to Washington: “Her tact, her gentle feminine persuasion” and her devotion to her chief causes of pacifism and nonviolence. That same year, the National American Woman Suffrage Association proclaimed most women holding local offices were wives and mothers, whose “mother capacity” would allow them to dedicate themselves to softer issues, “withstand[ing] all political, social and economic innovations.”
The whole point of electing women, some moderate advocates argued, was that they could be a tempering feminine counterbalance to easily inflamed men. They weren’t there to replace male lawmakers. They were there to complement them. They were there to be likable.
It was a strategic move for supporters of suffrage — an assurance to the opposition that women in political office needn’t be threatening. And it illustrates the impossible calculations made by every disenfranchised group historically seeking power: Do you slam the door open and announce your presence? Or do you ease it open, inch by inch, assuring the power-holders inside that they won’t get too cold?
Maybe the door needed to be slammed. Maybe expectations needed to be crystal clear: Female politicians weren’t running for office to be gentle, they were running to govern. They weren’t planning to be benevolent mothers, they were planning to be legislators. If you found this idea uncomfortable, then you might indeed feel threatened.
I was thinking about comfort, and expectations, and the ghosts of our past earlier this week, as I replayed a viral 6-second clip of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) waving silently on an Amtrak car. Her caption: “I hear women candidates are most likable in the quiet car!”
She’d apparently tweeted it in response to a poorly titled Politico post which read, “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux — being written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?” Politico’s conceit was — well, I don’t know what the conceit was. Apparently, that people didn’t like Clinton, and so they probably disliked all older women? That Warren herself should be responsible for fixing other people’s sexism? That Clinton, like many women before her, had been doomed by personality traits unbefitting to her sex?
Warren’s tweet went viral. Some of the attention came from supporters, who liked the nose-thumbing. Most of the attention came from people who were eager to prove her point. “You are NOT likable,” read one response. “Just keep quiet. no one wants to hear what you have to say!!”
Progress, in many ways, has been made in gallops over the past century. Warren posted her tweet on the eve of a massive historic moment: A record number of women were about to be sworn into Congress. They included the first Muslim American women and the first Native American women. Nancy Pelosi, elected the first female speaker of the House 12 years ago, was poised to assume the role again. And Warren herself had recently announced she’d be running for president in 2020, the centennial of the 19th Amendment.
Thursday’s swearing-in, if you watched it, was like a lot of American politics: excruciatingly long, often boring and interrupted by occasional jokes that are funny only if you’ve been trapped in a marathon of parliamentary procedure.
But it had its moments. It had dozens of children being invited to join Pelosi on the dais, to represent the future of the country. It had Brenda Lawrence, (D-Mich.) casting her vote for Pelosi by saying she was “standing on the shoulders of the women who marched 100 years ago to give me the right to vote.” It had parents holding babies, and Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) calling out her signature catchphrase, “Reclaiming my time.”
It had Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), who delivered the speech nominating Pelosi, passionately and eloquently honoring her political savviness and announcing that “House Democrats are down with N.D.P.”
In that moment, it didn’t really matter if these women were likable, it mattered that they were there. It did not matter if pundits thought they were too unappealing to win; they had, in fact, already won.
Newly elected Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) politely shook Pelosi’s hand and then immediately played with his phone instead of listening to her acceptance speech. No matter. She still had the speech to give; she still had the gavel in her hand. Do you think Nancy Pelosi cares if you like her? The woman has raised five children; she is impervious to hormonal people screaming “I hate you,” while demanding they be liberated from her rule.
First-term firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was booed by GOP lawmakers when she cast her vote for Nancy Pelosi, but the discourteous reaction didn’t prevent her from having a vote to cast. “Don’t hate me cause you ain’t me, fellas,” she tweeted to her detractors. That day an anonymous Twitter account spread a video of her dancing in college — as if a college-age woman dancing made her ineligible for later office! — but, no matter. Ocasio-Cortez was already a congresswoman by then.
The thing about the likability question is it doesn’t really matter in the end. I received half a dozen emails in quick succession from female friends who had been watching the swearing-in of this diverse Congress and found themselves moved nearly to tears. None of them mentioned how much they liked the female legislators. What was moving to them was how the legislators had made it to Washington despite the tweets, and memes, and she’s too stodgy and she’s not stodgy enough, and despite centuries’ worth of lots of people not liking them.
We should never start with likability. Likability can come later. Likability can come when all genders are equally represented, when it’s common enough that people start to wonder what the fuss was about all along. We can like women later. Start by getting them in the room.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.