Such behavior inspired a social media meme about her detail-oriented consideration for others: “Elizabeth Warren always knows exactly what she wants when she gets to the front of the Starbucks line and never holds everyone else up.” “Elizabeth Warren has never asked a bartender ‘what whiskeys do you have?’ She’s already checked the shelf.” Warren became famous for making personal phone calls to small-dollar donors and for taking selfies with voters: As of January, she had taken 100,000 of them.
The perception of Warren as exceptionally considerate and competent helped her to lead the polls by October. That perception also helps to explain her subsequent downfall; she suspended her campaign on Thursday. After attracting the nation’s attention, she received the relentless, complicated scrutiny Americans bring to women who stand a realistic chance of gaining a position of authority that only men, historically, have occupied. Under such scrutiny, perceptions that a woman is warm and compassionate can dissipate in a heartbeat, on the basis of minor missteps. Yet for a woman aspiring to the presidency — and for a woman with a very real chance of winning — those perceptions are likely to be vital. She cannot get by without them.
In an illuminating series of studies, social psychologist Madeline Heilman and her colleagues found that, when a man and a woman competed for a traditionally male position of authority, there was a marked bias against the female candidate in favor of the male candidate. When information about their competence was equivocal, 86 percent of participants deemed the male candidate more competent. When there was strong evidence of both candidates’ competence, 83 percent of people judged the man more likable. The female candidate was regarded, moreover, as “interpersonally hostile” — as conniving, pushy, selfish, abrasive, manipulative and untrustworthy — even though the study participants had the same information, on average, about the two people to be evaluated (the male and female names on the personnel files were switched for every second participant). These biases were demonstrated in women as much as men, and in people who were young, as millennials.
But the researchers also found that this potent gender bias could be overcome under specific conditions: when the woman was described as having communal attributes — being understanding, caring, sensitive to others’ needs and so on. For men, such communal virtues made no difference to their popularity. So women needed to be extraordinary just for their power to be palatable. When they were seen as erring in these respects, they were liable to be punished and rejected. And research shows that while voters are often willing to vote for male candidates they dislike if they perceive them as qualified, this is not true for female ones.
Unfortunately, a woman can “err” in this domain simply by competing in the political arena and actively challenging her male rivals. A 2010 Harvard study found that voters view male and female politicians as equally power-seeking, but respond to them quite differently: Men who seek power were viewed as stronger and tougher, while power-seeking women provoked feelings of disgust and contempt. Throughout Hillary Clinton’s time in public life — her husband’s administration, her time in the Senate, her 2008 presidential run and her tenure as secretary of state — her approval rating was always higher the further she got from political ambition; her popularity fell whenever she sought higher office. In my home country, Australia, Julia Gillard was a fairly popular politician until she became prime minister, whereupon she was widely portrayed in the media as fake, selfish, opportunistic, cynical and backstabbing, having toppled the former leader, Kevin Rudd, in an internal party challenge. When Warren became the front-runner for the Democratic nomination last year, it was, ironically, a liability: She risked being seen as too powerful and ambitious, and disliked on this basis.
Such gender dynamics were also at work during what was perhaps the biggest crisis for Warren’s campaign: a rare moment of conflict with her fellow progressive, Sanders. CNN reported a story about a meeting between them in December 2018, when Warren told Sanders she was planning to run for president. According to Warren’s campaign, Sanders said he didn’t think a woman could win against President Trump. Sanders, meanwhile, vehemently denies having said this. Rather, he maintains, he said that sexism would be weaponized by Trump against a female candidate.
Whatever transpired — and it’s not clear that the two candidates’ tellings are ultimately incompatible — Warren’s role in the conflict was probably far more damaging to her candidacy. All else being equal, when a woman challenges the authority of a trusted male figure, she is likely to be the one who comes off as incorrect, even immoral. When he says that she’s lying, people tend to believe him; when she says that he is, she’s perceived as betraying him and attacking him cruelly. Ever since, memes depicting Warren as a snake have proliferated on Twitter. The symbolism is obvious: When a man and a woman clash, she is the one who is poisonous and sneaky.
That imagery is just one instance of the explicit misogyny Warren faced when she behaved in ways deemed uncaring. Some pundits took particular exception to her expressions of righteous anger: “Mean and angry Warren is not a good look,” tweeted Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist at The Washington Post, during the Feb. 19 debate. “The trouble is, with this senator, enough is never enough,” former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg lamented, after Warren demanded that he release female ex-employees from nondisclosure agreements during the Feb. 25 debate.
But other, subtler forms of misogyny also held Warren to a higher moral standard, while forgiving comparable lapses in her male counterparts. When she was pressed, far more strenuously than Sanders, for details about how she would implement Medicare-for-all, Warren eventually laid out a comprehensive plan to expand coverage under the Affordable Care Act before passing a bill that would implement a single-payer system during her third year in the White House. Afterward, Warren was roundly condemned for supposedly backpedaling, because her plan allowed for a transition to Medicare-for-all. The controversy seemed to activate people’s hair-trigger suspicions about a woman’s lack of steadfastness and purity. Meanwhile, Sanders has paid essentially no penalty for flipping on whether the candidate with a plurality of delegates should automatically become the Democratic nominee; now he supports the idea, but in 2016, he didn’t. Nor has former vice president Joe Biden faced much criticism, either for his hazy public-option health plan or for the embellished stories he has told on the campaign trail.
With her presidential bid now over, there will be much debate about whether Warren’s political misfortunes are attributable to sexism or, rather, her campaign’s missteps. But this is a false contrast. Warren fell prey to the widespread — and yes, misogynistic — sense that, unlike their male rivals, women are not entitled to make mistakes, especially when it comes to supposed communal values. They are not entitled to challenge the narratives put forward by their male counterparts. And while they may be permitted to have power under certain conditions, they are not entitled to seek it, nor to take it away from men. Until we face these facts, we will not get a female president.