vision 2020

How to Break the Highest Glass Ceiling in America

Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are laboring under the shadow of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential contest was obviously a terrible blow to the high expectations that she would finally shatter the “glass ceiling” preventing women from the highest public office in the land. But the hangover from that defeat is arguably worse: Many Democrats are so convinced that sexism was at the root of her defeat that they are terrified to nominate another woman — or at least another woman superficially like HRC — in 2020. And it’s not just a whispered fear, as the New York Times discovered when it explored this subject recently:

Joyce Cusack would love to see a woman as president in her lifetime. But she is not sure it should happen in 2020.

“Are we ready in 2020? I really don’t think we are,” said Ms. Cusack, 75, a former Democratic National Committee member from Florida. Too many Americans may not want to “take another chance” on a female candidate, Ms. Cusack said, after Hillary Clinton was met with mistrust and even hostility in swing states.

Cusack’s hardly alone. As a 2018 Pew study showed, women seem to have internalized the Clinton defeat as being about sexism far more than men have:

Some 45% of Americans say that voters not being ready to elect a woman to higher office is a major barrier to female political leadership, up from 37% in 2014.

This change has come almost entirely among women. Now, 57% of women say this is a major reason why there are fewer women than men in high political offices; four years ago, about four-in-ten women (41%) said the same. Among men, the share citing voters not being ready to elect women to higher office as a major reason is virtually unchanged from four years ago (32% now and 31% in 2014).

And so, ironically, it’s often outspoken feminists who are the least bullish about nominating another woman to take on the boorish MAGA man in 2020, as the Times report found:

“There’s a real tension,” said Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress and a former policy adviser to Mrs. Clinton. “On one hand, women are leading the resistance and deserve representation. But on the other side, there’s a fear that if misogyny beat Clinton, it can beat other women.”

So assuming, as I do, that finally electing a woman as chief executive after 45 men have served is inherently a very good thing, what sort of strategy should those supporting that development embrace to make it happen? Here are some alternatives:

Wait until the stakes are lower

Part of the fear involved in nominating a woman in 2020 is clearly associated with the existential dread Democrats — and perhaps feminists in particular — have about the consequences of a second Trump term. If a man is more likely to head off the prospect of a Supreme Court revoking reproductive rights or an unleashed Trump wreaking even more havoc at home and abroad, maybe (so the thinking goes) it’s worth delaying the presumably inevitable breakthrough of the First Woman President. By the same token, nothing would ameliorate the existential dread more than a slam-dunk general election in which history could be safely made. Yes, Barack Obama was a gifted politician, but a strong Democratic tide heading into 2008 certainly helped give Democrats the courage to nominate an African-American.

Let Republicans nominate a woman first

This is what might be called the Nixon-Goes-to-China approach, based on the assumption that a post-Trump Republican Party could well try to expand its narrow electoral base by nominating Nikki Haley or Joni Ernst or Marsha Blackburn or Martha McSally. Indeed, if Democrats knew that was going to happen, they might then nominate a woman of their own and guarantee a breakthrough. This is not, obviously, an especially courageous strategy, and might even backfire if the white-male–dominated GOP realized they could delay the election of a woman as president perpetually.

Nominate a different kind of female candidate

One commonly heard theory is that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy wasn’t slain by undifferentiated sexism, but by a particular variety that she — as an older woman, or as an outspoken feminist or as an established cultural icon or as a policy wonk — particularly stimulated. And some observers think Elizabeth Warren is peculiarly susceptible to the same prejudices, as Peter Beinart explains:

[I]n seeking to bolster their fragile reputation for competence, women can undermine their aura of charisma in two separate ways. First, they become less likable. As Susan Fiske, Amy Cuddy, and Peter Glick have illustrated, women in traditional roles—say, housewives—are generally perceived as warm but incompetent. But women who defy these traditional stereotypes and prove their competence in a male-dominated sphere—say, women soldiers, businesspeople, or politicians—are frequently deemed cold and unfriendly.

That’s what happened to Hillary Clinton … [and] is now happening to Warren. FiveThirtyEight has called her “the wonkiest person in the field.” In February, however, when the University of New Hampshire asked Granite State voters which candidate they considered most “likable,” 31 percent chose Joe Biden and 20 percent chose Sanders. Beto O’Rourke, who hadn’t yet announced his candidacy, received 9 percent. Warren, despite being a well-known senator from a neighboring state, garnered only 3 percent.

So would a different kind of woman be less susceptible to sexism? Possibly so, says Beinart:

One apparent exception to this pattern is Kamala Harris, who in February was deemed most likable by 9 percent of New Hampshire voters, below Biden and Sanders but three times as high as Warren. It’s impossible to know for sure why Harris is so far evading the “double bind” between competence and charisma. But research into the different ways people perceive white and black women might offer a clue …

 [According to one study] black women [are] frequently “perceived as dominant and strong.” Thus, when black women leaders take actions that make them appear dominant, they might face less of a “backlash for counter-stereotypical behavior.” They’re not penalized as much for acting against gender stereotype because the stereotypes attributed to them are different.

Or, as one female colleague said to me: “Harris has that Olivia Pope vibe going for her” (an allusion to the hyper-competent and glamorous African-American political fixer in the long-running hit TV show Scandal). And quite possibly Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand could have a different impact on the public than Warren and Clinton.

Persist and build a gender frontlash stronger than the backlash

There’s something deeply dispiriting, defeatist, and — yes — sexist about all those strategies, suggesting as they do that Clinton’s loss — and some future Democratic woman’s loss — are just beyond the little ladies’ control. The reality is that Clinton comfortably won the popular vote and lost the election due to an improbable Electoral College inside straight that Trump likely cannot pull off twice. And her loss was certainly close enough that factors other than her gender — her failure to invest resources in key states she lost, the Comey letter, a general lassitude among liberal voters who had no idea Trump could win — may have been decisive.

At a minimum progressive activists and media observers should fight the sexist assumptions afflicting candidates like Elizabeth Warren instead of promoting or surrendering to them. Given a fresh and direct exposure to her, the “likability” problem might dissolve, as Sady Doyle recently observed:

At CNN’s town hall event on Monday, the American people saw something we’d been told was impossible: Elizabeth Warren winning over a crowd.

The Massachusetts senator took aim at a variety of subjects: the Electoral College, Mississippi’s racist state flag, the rise of white nationalism. Always, she was met with thunderous applause …

Warren is accused, in plain language, of being uppity — a woman who has the bad grace to be smarter than the men around her, without downplaying it to assuage their egos. But running in a presidential race is all about proving that you are smarter than the other guy. By demanding that Warren disguise her exceptional talents, we are asking her to lose. Thankfully, she’s not listening. She is a smart woman, after all.

With a less defeatist attitude, progressives and particularly feminists might invest in building a frontlash — pride among women about Warren’s brains and accomplishments — that can outweigh any sexist backlash. The “nevertheless, she persisted” tagline that followed Warren around in 2017 after Mitch McConnell tried to silence her on the Senate floor might become relevant again as she and other women in the presidential field refuse to give up on the proposition that they are electable as they actually happen to be.

Ultimately that glass ceiling isn’t going to break itself, and waiting for the right moment or the right candidate or the right opponent just keeps it in place perpetually. At a minimum, those who want to see it shatter need to give women a chance in the run-up to 2020. Until such time as voters cast their ballots in caucuses and primaries, it’s premature to decide Democrats can’t “risk” running a woman again. See how they run, and maybe the myth of an incorrigibly sexist electorate will shatter, too.

How to Break the Highest Glass Ceiling in America