We'll probably never know whether voters' prejudice against a female potential president contributed to Clinton's loss — or if it did, to what degree. But we do know that research has clearly demonstrated that voters hold female politicians to a different standard (read: double) from their male counterparts.
As I wrote a month before the presidential election, research from the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies women in politics, found that women can't just be themselves when they run for office. They constantly have to contemplate what their looks, clothes and smile (whether they smile) project to voters, in a way men don't.
Take for instance the foundation's research that voters care whether their female politicians are likable, an attribute that is not something they need from their male political leaders. Among the suggestions the foundation put together for aspiring female politicians to navigate voters' sometimes-confusing expectations of public women:
- Don't pose for a head shot. Instead, circulate more-candid, informal photos of you engaging in your community — say hanging out with children on a playground. “To show likability, a woman doing her job among constituents is effective,” the study's authors say.
- Do share personal anecdotes when explaining why you're passionate about an issue or how you've helped constituents.
- Don't take credit all the time for your accomplishments; every once in a while share credit with your team.
- Do recognize your hair, makeup and clothes will be scrutinized by voters much more than a man's.
More recent foundation research found that voters are also concerned about female politicians' personal lives — specifically, they're concerned that female politicians will struggle to balance motherhood and their careers. Among the findings:
- In addition to worrying about whether you're an effective candidate if you're a mom, voters worry about the impact your public-office job will have on your children.
- Men can recover from critiques about their abilities to manage family and public office. Women struggle to regain that ground.
- Voters recognize this is all a double standard, and yet they “actively participate in it AND are conscious of doing so.”
“Time and again, we found that women candidates still bump up against the gender expectations voters have for the presidency,” said Barbara Lee, citing work her foundation and the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University put together and are expected to release this month. “After all, for 228 years, the presidency has looked decidedly male.”
Even before Clinton lost, she was hinting at the outsize role she thought her gender was playing in the election. Two months before the election, she remarked that “it's especially tricky for women” to come across as both serious and likable.
“Because there are a lot of serious things,” Clinton told Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.” “The other night, I was on a show and being asked about ISIS and Iran,” she said, using the acronym for the Islamic State, “and I was serious. These are important issues that the country needs to talk about. And the Republicans were saying: 'Oh, she looks so serious.' ”
Clinton continued: “Well, you don't talk about ISIS with a big grin on your face. They're a barbaric, evil group that we have to defeat and wipe out. But it is a constant balancing act: How do you keep the energy and positive spirit while taking seriously what you need to?”
That's the bad news for gender-parity politics. The good news? Despite the documented hurdles and double standards women face in politics, research also shows that women can win elections at the same rate as men.
And anecdotal evidence from partisan and nonpartisan women-in-politics organizations suggests that Clinton's loss isn't deterring women from jumping into the public sphere, as some female leaders feared it would. Women-only classes for how to run for office are packed.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women in Politics, recently told The Fix that it feels as if women are getting involved politically in a way the nation hasn't seen since the feminism movement of the 1960s and '70s.
“The morning after the 2016 election, I was concerned that women might crawl under the bedsheets and just try to recover,” Walsh said. “But here is this real sense that women can't sit on the sidelines. I think they've gotten in a different kind of way that elections have consequences and therefore they have to step up.”
So did Clinton lose the presidency because she's a woman? I don't think that's something we'll ever able to objectively measure. But many researchers have been able to measure that, in 2017, women who want to run for office are held to different/higher/double standards in nearly all aspects of their lives compared with their male competitors.