Can a female candidate turn the country's elections upside down?


As we hunker down for the Presidential primaries with a surfeit of Democratic candidates——five of them women and counting—we need to explore the question, “Is America ready for a female president?”  Will the nation only find a male acceptable as the safer bet to steal back the presidency from Trump? Not so quickly, there.   Let’s have a look at what’s going on with this political debate and where it might end up in 2020. 

Can a Woman stand up to the Donald?

Articles and public opinion abound on whether we can accept a woman in the White House.  Can a woman stand up to Trump’s alpha-male style during the debates to secure the necessary votes?  While most poles say “no,” an increasing number are starting to suggest “perhaps, but not yet.” There are also a few boldly responding “yes.” Surprisingly, more and more Democrats are expecting a woman to be the front-runner in the election. One of them may even choose a male as her running mate.  Good heavens. 

Even with this growing swell of optimism, we need to be realists.  After Hillary’s devastating defeat, most people feel that putting up another female Democrat makes the party vulnerable to another loss.  I was curious to understand what fuels this fear and whether this concern is well-grounded. Turns out, the basis of most of this anxiety rests on one issue:  sexism.  

Sexism is as old as time

Karen Olah, one of the first women to join the American Stock Exchange, reminded me that sexism has been around for a long time. “I remember when I first join the ASE a man came up to me and demanded that I get off the floor.” She never did and went on to have a long, successful career. But it wasn’t easy because most men she encountered starting back in the mid 70’s held traditional attitudes towards gender.

Karen’s experience is just one example of how men can be intimidated by the power certain women have over them in the workplace, not just in the White House.  Excluding Millennials and Gen-Xers, most of us were raised with the notion of the man being at the head of the table, as our “hunter/gatherer.”  Our mothers, as the “nurturer,” were in the kitchen making our dinner. Even if feminists roil against the classically perceived roles for the sexes, it’s a reality to both confront and tame as we head to the primaries. 

A modern view of women in power

In researching for this post, I found a disturbing quote on TheCatholicMen site stating that a “Man’s Mission is as Leader, Provider and Protector. This non-inclusive attitude reflects what George, my running buddy, bluntly stated at breakfast the other morning. “No doubt about it, there is an inherent prejudice against women which exists among the species.” But as the father of two successful daughters, one an oncologist and another a lawyer, he hastened to add, “But this is slowly changing. Tearing down these role divisions takes generations.” Luckily, we are starting to see more and more Americans accepting others who stray from the expected norm and judge them on their capabilities first rather than by their sex. But, is this number large enough to elect a woman president?

Still for the most part, when a woman deviates from traditional gender roles—by taking a job traditionally held by a man, or by appearing to be too masculine in appearance or demeanor—she makes others uncomfortable. Given the anxieties that women of power women can provoke, it should come as no surprise that both men and women judge them more harshly than they judge powerful men. When a woman leads and is strong-willed, we call her shrill, domineering, and overly ambitious.  When a man acts in the same manner, he is respected as a confident leader. No question, this constitutes a dual standard.

Confronting the issue of sexism as a deterrent to a fair election

What is clear is, if we don’t create greater awareness of this sexism and its unfounded prejudice as an important public issue in the campaign, we are unlikely to see a woman grab the election in 2020. Just as we confront voter suppression, gerrymandering, foreign intervention and fake news as deterrents to a fair election, we need to address how people react to female leadership. If we want to see change, it is our responsibility to help fight sexist assumptions and make the media accountable to how it judges and reports on female candidates.

New York Magazine recently suggested one possible way to giving female candidates a fairer shake at the White House.  They suggest “to build a gender front lash stronger than the back lash.”  You might find the article of interest:  In other words, let’s confront the misogyny issue head on.

Hillary’s defeat is yesterday’s news

Another thing we can do is to ask the media to stop bringing up Hillary Clinton’s failed election.  We can debate both sides of the outcome. However,  no one can deny the fact that Hillary comfortably won the popular vote and lost the election due to an improbable Electoral College. Yet only the current women candidates are burdened with the extra step of addressing Hillary’s defeat, even before they try to establish why they might be the best choice for the job. This burden is unnecessarily onerous.

The distorted value of a candidate’s likeability

Another sad reality which needs addressing is the likability factor. In many instances, it appears to be more important than the candidate’s ability or track record.  Call it reality vs perceived reality.  You can see it being played out every day in the primaries.  While the female candidates are presenting their policy platforms, the men are managing their image. Certainly, this is a strategic choice for each candidate to make.

The result is that the media and general public is gushing over Beto O’Rourke of Texas—who looks like a Kennedy—and Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana—who taught himself Norwegian to read a book in that language.  Neither of these two male candidates—nor the other men including Joe Biden— have put forth any substantive ideas of how they plan to improve our lives.  Unfortunately, so far none of the female candidates have enjoyed any of the same warm admiration the men have received. 

Who would make for an ideal female presidential candidate?

To understand this gender backlash, I thought it might be helpful to ask a few men their thoughts on the primaries. Lar Leicht, a wine industry guru agreed, as did many of my male friends, that there is still a strong prejudice against women by white men. When I asked Lars what an ideal female candidate might look like he replied enthusiastically, “Perhaps if she weren’t a politician, she’d have a better chance.”

Lars continued his argument, “To avoid the ‘in the swamp’ image of a politician, someone from the judiciary branch, for example, might have a better chance at winning. To become a judge, it clearly takes intelligence.  Most judges have the reputation for being impartial and less politically motivated in their decision making than their political counterparts.  Fairness counts for a lot with voters.  Being a politician, with their perceived lack of transparency, does not.”

The theory of choosing someone outside of the political arena does have merit. However, it has not been a factor in the current primary race as all the candidates so far are from local or national government.  But to continue the hypothetical conversation, one of my female friends, who owns a highly successful public relations agency, thought Oprah Winfrey would be an ideal candidate.  “She is a smart, successful businesswoman, a born leader, and diplomatic.  She has a reputation for building consensus and is seen as a compassionate human being.  I’d definitely vote for her.” One might add that Oprah’s strong religious grounding plus her being a household word doesn’t hurt either.  However, Oprah’s entering the race seems highly unlikely at this juncture.   

Likeability vs Issues

Speaking of likeability, isn’t it time that we call out the media for writing stories about how likeable a candidate is? While we all appreciate the current popularity of “storytelling”, choosing a candidate based on how we like or dislike them is a trap.  What about issues?   That’s what really should matter with the voter.

Advice for a female candidate’s successful campaign

Joan Brower, another successful marketing/communications executive, certainly believes a woman President is a possibility in 2020.  There are three things she suggests that a female candidate should do to facilitate a successful run: “Establish your credibility; demonstrate strength; and build an emotional connection with the public.”

Architect and political activist, Doug Balder, suggests that female candidates find ways to appeal to members of both parties and especially independents (who he claims out number members of either party).”   To do this he has three recommendations: “First, build bridges across various partisan divides by finding common practical interests not centered on bi-partisan politics. Second, don’t center your campaign about what’s wrong or who is wrong. Third, talk to everyone and ask, what can we build together?”

Never underestimate the impossible

As we struggle to determine how to give women a fair chance at being elected, we need to start with a more optimistic attitude.  As Lars reminded me, “No one ever thought an African American would ever make it to the White House.  Then, Obama appeared on the horizon.  He was young, charismatic, and a gifted orator. Despite the underlying prejudice in this country against anyone who is not a white male in a presidential role, Obama swept us off our feet.” So, if Obama did it, why can’t a woman win the next presidential election?

The political tides are changing

Let’s not forget that there were unprecedented congressional wins for women in the recent mid-term elections. More than half of the House districts that flipped from Republican to Democrats were won by women. The current roster of female candidates—including Ms. Warren, Ms. Gillibrand, Ms. Harris, Ms. Klobuchar and Ms. Gabbard—were all winners! They are all part of a meaningful new direction in how we think about women in power. These winning women are starting to sway skeptics about their potential to gain votes. Political pundits and the media should be encouraged to focus on this.  Maybe a candidate’s likeabilty factor isn’t the primary consideration after all.

Carolyn Faggioni, a local New Yorker, presented a strong case to the media. right. On May 11th  she wrote a compelling letter to the New York Times’ Opinion section asking: “Can we please let the strong and immensely talented women who are running for our nation’s highest office run as themselves and not some ‘Stepford Wife Meets Pleasantville’ version of what the first female president should be, for the sake of ‘likeablilty.’”

To top off this discussion from a male perspective, I share with you my friend Steve’s answer to “Do you think you’ll live to see a woman in the White house” question?  His ironic reply: “I hope I live that long!”  Many of us, male and female, who are bullish on a potential female winner might reply to Steve’s cynical remark, “Do you think you can make it to November 2020?”