Despite the progress women have recently made in politics — record-breaking numbers of women were sent to Congress and state capitals after the 2018 midterms — a sizable number of women still doubt voters will support a woman becoming the most powerful person in the world.
When asked, “Generally speaking, do you think a woman can win the presidency of the United States, or not?” only 15 percent of registered voters said no.
But what’s telling is that the percentage of women who doubt a woman can win the Oval Office is more than double the proportion of men who say so. One in 5 women say a woman cannot win the presidency; 9 percent of men say the same.
The Post’s Monkey Cage blog recently published a piece by two academics who studied why this is the case.
Research conduced by Northern Arizona University politics professor Lori Poloni-Staudinger and Central Michigan University political science professor J. Cherie Strachan shows that when female candidates violate social norms — including pursuing ambitious political goals — they are often disliked, making it difficult to win voters’ support.
Poloni-Staudinger and Strachan, co-authors of “Why Don’t Women Rule the World: Understanding Women’s Civic and Political Choices,” wrote this week in The Washington Post:
Politics, so long dominated by men, has a masculine ethos; women and men alike perceive political success as being linked to masculine traits such as self-promotion and fighting. Further, the people around potential female candidates — from parents to party chairs — often do not think to encourage them to run for office. Women themselves often do not envision pursuing such a male-coded profession, which could make them appear to be more aggressive than nurturing. Saying a woman can’t win the presidency reinforces all these internalized barriers.
Hillary Clinton made history in the last presidential election by becoming the first woman to win a major political party nomination. But that fact did not fully erase anxiety among Americans — perhaps especially women — about the prevalence of sexism in American politics. Her loss probably exacerbated that anxiety for many of them.
Some voters have continued to doubt a woman can win the presidential election in today’s political climate. In early 2018, months ahead of the midterm election, only 19 percent of women said a woman would “definitely” be elected president of the United States in their lifetime in an Economist/YouGov survey. About the same percentage of men — 21 percent — said so.
Clinton critics often argued it was the former secretary of state’s high disapproval ratings that caused her to lose. Most registered voters had a “strongly unfavorable” or “somewhat unfavorable” view of Clinton in September 2016, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll.
After her defeat, plenty of people argued America was ready for a female president — just not one named Clinton. Recent numbers would support that line of thought. The overwhelming majority of registered voters — 84 percent — say “a woman can win the presidency of the United States,” according to the CNN poll.
But recent allegations that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — the highest-polling woman currently in the race — that a woman couldn’t win the presidency became a flash point in the race and have resurfaced that conversation.
Sanders denied the accusations. “It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win,” he said.
Critics of Sanders called his alleged comments sexist. Many supporters believed him when he said he didn’t say that. A charitable reading of the charges and denials is that Sanders was acknowledging something the data supports. Or, as my Post colleague Monica Hesse wrote: “When is someone acknowledging sexism, and when is someone just being sexist?”
The latest poll is revealing but perhaps not that surprising. I previously wrote about how a majority of Democrats think a woman or minority can beat Trump. But at the same time, almost half of Democrats think the best person to defeat the president from the White House is Biden.
These latest findings remind us of what many Americans already believe: Sexism is real in American society and politics and will continue to be. And despite the progress that has been made in other areas, the belief that the highest level of government is out of reach for women persists.