Virginia’s governor and attorney general are caught up in scandals concerning blackface; the lieutenant governor is accused credibly by two women of sexual assault. Former congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.), Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore were among the politicians whose careers were cut short due to sexual assault or sexual harassment allegations. President Trump was credibly accused of sexual misconduct by nearly 20 women, was captured on tape bragging about sexual assault and paid off two alleged mistresses before Election Day.
We have had an epidemic of sexual misconduct scandals (not to mention Trump Cabinet members’ financial scandals), virtually all involving men. You or someone you discuss politics with at some point has probably said, half-joking, that we should only elect women for a while. The unspoken assumption is that women are more trustworthy, at least in certain respects.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is a political dynamo, putting her skills honed as a mother and grandmother into her job managing squabbling House members and a president prone to temper tantrums. The Post reports:
Long before she presided over the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi presided over a house of five children in San Francisco. Back then she was just another outnumbered parent, trying to figure out how to rein in a brood of wily kids using a combination of love, leverage and Jedi mom tricks.
There was no master plan to develop skills that would later be useful in politics. It just happened, day in and day out, as she toiled in the experience that she saw — and still sees — as the most exciting, exhausting, important work of her life.
In the 2018 midterms and gubernatorial races dozens of women, almost all Democrats and many new to politics, swept to victories. A good many adopted no-nonsense messages, such as Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Fix the damn roads.”
Don’t get me wrong. Women can say dumb and racist things (e.g. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s remark about attending a hanging), but by and large, the pandemic of politicians behaving badly — from Trump and his nearly all-male Cabinet down to local and state offices — has involved men.
By contrast, we have seen a whole lot of super-competent women do their jobs better than any man in recent memory has done (e.g., Pelosi handling the shutdown, Stacey Abrams delivering the response to the State of the Union, impressive presidential campaign announcements from Sens. Kamala D. Harris and Amy Klobuchar). What passes for a scandal involving a woman is Klobuchar writing tardy slips for employees who were, um, tardy.
The politicians who mess up are far more likely to be men these days because there are still many more men than women in office, and candidly, a generation of “first” women (governors, senators) arguably had to be better prepared and more ethically pristine to earn voters’ trust. Perhaps in future generations there will be just as many female louts in public life, but right now men are indisputably leaders when it comes to scandals, particularly those involving race and sex. (To be clear, there are wonderful male public servants and lousy women, but if you wanted to pick a candidate with a lower probability of involvement in a major scandal, you would have better luck, all other things being equal, choosing a woman.
With the perception that women are less likely to be caught up in scandal, do female presidential candidates have some advantage in 2020? Well, let’s not get carried away. Many voters still have qualms about voting for a woman, and plenty of coverage traffics in gender stereotypes. That said, if there is now a subtle bias in favor of women because they are viewed as safer choices than men, perhaps the playing field is at least more level than it has ever been.
A few additional factors should not be overlooked. First, Hillary Clinton unquestionably made it easier for those women who followed, if for no other reason than reporters got an earful about gender-biased coverage, Second, when half a dozen or so women are running, gender is no longer a defining feature, or at least the defining characteristic in the race. Third, as women have fled the GOP in droves, they are tipping the gender balance in the Democratic Party’s electorate even more dramatically in favor of women. Women don’t automatically vote for women, but it sure doesn’t hurt when female candidates are looking to relate to the lives of voters and channel their concerns.
In sum, we shouldn’t be Pollyannaish about the political climate for women. However, if female candidates’ chances are improving, male politicians may have only themselves to blame.