Women and Power: What Happens Next?
On the morning of November 8, I got up, jogged to the gym, and cheerfully chatted with the woman working the early-bird shift at the front desk. I asked if she got time off to vote. "Oh, I'm taking time off to vote today,” she said — it was that important to her.
It was important to me, too. An hour later I proudly posted a picture of the various women who raised me, saying that I was casting my vote on behalf of all of them. I thought especially of my mother, who died when I was 19, a pioneering woman who worked in the mostly male field of biochemistry (and still managed to be home by 6:00 most nights—wish she were around for me to ask for tips on that). She would have loved casting her vote for a woman. Later, as I took my family — including my 14-year-old daughter — off to NYC's Javits Center for the evening to watch what we thought would be a historic moment for women of all political stripes, I was wearing my suffragette T-shirt and my mother’s pearl earrings.
We all know how that story ended.
Now, I'm not breaking out the Kleenex over the fact that my candidate lost. Politics is big-girl-pants territory: If you're not ready to lose, don't get in the game. But to many young women (who voted for Hillary Clinton 2 to 1), this was not a regular loss; it was a surreal bad joke in which a woman who has worked her whole life for one goal gets close, is knocked down, works hard again, and finally, just as the movie-peak coronation scene is about to happen — as pollsters all agree it will this time — BAM! The entire country gives her an epic head fake and goes for the other guy.
I will leave it to the thousands of history books sure to be written about this election to sort out how much of a factor gender ultimately was, or wasn’t, in the outcome. But on the morning of November 9, it really looked like America just didn't want to have a female president — like America, in fact, would do anything to avoid having a female president. And just hours into processing that, I got a query from a news outlet looking for comment: "Was there something women didn’t relate to about Hillary?" the producers asked. "Why did they find her less likable than Donald Trump?"
The questions made me want to put my fist through the computer screen. First, for how simplistic they were; the results of this election, we now know, show profound divisions in how Americans see this country: seismic rifts around issues of race, immigration, income. The idea that the results could have been swayed if Clinton had just been more likable—if geez, she had only worn more pink, or smiled more, or not made some random comment 25 years ago about not staying home to bake cookies — seems like wishful thinking at best, female-blaming at worst. (It’s insulting to female Trump supporters too — most of whom had more meaningful reasons for voting for their candidate than just "Hilz doesn't seem like someone I wanna get a beer with.")
But beyond that, the questions stung because the idea of "likability" (whatever that is) is in and of itself deeply, painfully, inextricably gendered. We simply do not require our male candidates to be as likable as our female ones. Research proves it: Voters will support a man they don’t particularly like if they believe he is right for the job. Trump, for instance, was disliked by 20 percent of the people who cast votes for him. But when it comes to women running for office, studies indicate, voters demand a very specific cocktail of both competence and likability.
All of which makes it particularly galling that it’s so damn hard for a lady candidate to be considered likable to begin with. It's not that our culture has a problem with powerful women necessarily; this is 2016, and there are plenty of well-liked Sheryl Sandbergs and Shonda Rhimeses to show otherwise. But we may actually be more cool with women having power than with women seeking power: Research shows that when females campaign for office — or otherwise lobby for promotion — their "likability" takes a hit. (Clinton's approval ratings were just fine back when she was secretary of state, after all; it was when she openly strove for the next level that they started to drop.) The hard-to-ignore message? We may still have issues with women openly admitting they want power, be it in the form of votes or even a raise.
That disturbing observation could really mess you up if you let it. (How are we ever going to get anywhere if we’re not supposed to be caught trying?) So my suggestion is that you don’t let it. Let’s resolve to redefine likability to include women who want things, badly, for themselves and for others. I liked Hillary Clinton’s doggedness, and I like the determination it takes for any woman to go for a promotion, seek a better salary, or yes, run for office, as many times as it takes.
So go do it already! I'd like to vote for you someday, and I’ve already got my outfit all picked out.
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