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Opinion How misogyny is already shaping the presidential race

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is running for president, at a campaign stop in Selma, Ala., on March 19. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

Imagine you were the mayor of a city of around 100,000 people, the 301st largest in the United States. One day, you thought to yourself, “I’m smart and competent. I have lots of thoughts about how to improve things. Sure, I’m only 37 years old, but I’ve got talent and energy. I think I’ll run for president of the United States.”

How do you think that candidacy would be greeted? Chances are that, if you’re a man, your answer would be something like, “Well, it seems like a long shot, but who knows? Anything is possible.” If you’re a woman, your answer probably would be, “Yeah, right. Give me a break.”

The presidential race on which we’ve now embarked is unusual in lots of ways — perhaps most notably the presence of six female candidates, four of whom are U.S. senators. And the recent surge of interest in South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is casting an interesting light on what we expect and demand of women and men.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of Buttigieg. He has a lot to commend. But Buttigieg is enjoying a hearing, including lots of positive media coverage, that no woman in his position could possibly be granted.

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In part, that’s because, as Jill Filipovic reminds us, we judge women by their accomplishments but men by their potential. Ambition in a man is considered admirable, while it’s considered threatening in a woman.

We’ve seen this time and again. Hillary Clinton’s popularity bounced up and down depending on whether she was seeking an office. Or take Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Back in 2016, many on the left held up Warren as everything they wanted in a presidential candidate. The key, though, was that Warren wasn’t running. Once she did run, many of those same people decided they weren’t so enamored of her after all. She used to be brilliant and charismatic; now people have decided she’s an inauthentic schoolmarm.

That case came up in a recent conversation I had with Kate Manne, a Cornell philosophy professor and author of “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny.” As Manne points out, when each woman currently running entered the race, a fatal flaw was quickly identified: Warren’s Native American ancestry, Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) treatment of her staff, or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) being, well, too ambitious (and for the role she played in pushing Sen. Al Franken to resign after multiple women alleged he groped them).

It wasn’t that you couldn’t make a case that those weren’t real issues (some more than others), but they dominated the discussion of those candidates to an unusual degree.

“The real fatal flaw is ambition,” Manne says, “and wanting to lead, and wanting to have a male-dominated authority position at the expense of men — and particularly white men — in the race. And that implicitly becomes the basis for suspicion and moral condemnation.”

Manne's conception of misogyny isn't as simple as the way we usually think about it, as just a hatred of women. Instead, she sees misogyny as a system that enforces patriarchal values, punishing women who step outside the norms of that system and the roles they've been assigned. And few things pose as much of a challenge to the patriarchy as a woman seeking the most powerful position in the country.

But some of the challenges that female candidates face are the same as women face in other contexts, like the workplace. Manne points to experimental research showing that when a woman is perceived to be competent, people will decide she’s unlikable. But if she’s likable, they’ll decide she isn’t as competent.

And, as Manne points out, it isn’t just that women have to be twice as good to be judged equal to men. When a man and a woman are competing directly against one another, people alter their judgments of both, so the man is judged even better than he would if he were competing with another man, while the woman is judged even more harshly than she would if she were competing with another woman.

“Women who go head-to-head with men for male-dominated positions are in a really bad spot,” the Cornell professor told me. “It’s striking that a lot of the areas where women have made enormous gains like education don’t involve head-to-head rankings of men and women or boys and girls. It’s just about how well you do on a particular test or essay, or what grade you get overall,” without situations in which one female is judged against one male.

But, of course, that’s just what a presidential campaign is. And if a woman should become the Democratic nominee, she’ll be running against a president who will again make hostility toward women and racial minorities not a bug but a feature of his campaign. “He made America the locker room,” Manne says, “where there are implicit permissions to engage in the kind of talk that would and should get you in trouble in more egalitarian settings. He radically extended the field of permission.”

Trump’s sexism is so vulgar and unapologetic that it is easy to think about it as something separate from the kind of hurdles that are placed in front of female candidates, hurdles that white men such as Buttigieg or former representative Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) don’t have to worry about. But they’re parts of a complex whole. O’Rourke’s entire campaign is essentially built on likability, without anyone bothering to ask whether he’s competent. Buttigieg’s desire to leapfrog three or four of the traditional rungs on the ladder is seen as worth noting but hardly disqualifying. If a woman in his position showed that kind of ambition, she’d be considered some kind of lunatic.

Reading Manne’s book can make one pretty depressed about the prospects for change any time soon, even with an unprecedented number of women running for president in 2020. “I think the idea that the American system will support a female president coming from the left any time soon is really optimistic, and maybe naive,” she said.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton did win 3 million more votes than did Trump, and if not for a highly unlikely confluence of events, she would now be the president. But the more success any woman running has, the more she’ll be the target of a backlash. It might be possible to overcome, but it won’t be easy.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Women don’t need to settle for second fiddle

Karen Tumulty: Elizabeth Warren has something Hillary Clinton didn’t

Jamie Stiehm: 2020 may be historic for women in more ways than one

Soraya Chemaly: Women in politics are the new, unexceptional normal