Can A Little Girl Dream of Becoming President?

Patricia Szima is a first year Political Economy student with interests in equality -focusing on the workplace equality-, travelling, watching The Terminator and baking fudgy brownies. Her favourite activities include enjoying the sunset on the beach and playing Scrabble.

[Feature Image: Two young girls wait for the 307th RED HORSE Squadron to return from their six month deployment to Iraq, Sunday April 13th. (U.S. Air Force photo by TSgt Laura K. Smith). Source.]

People are ready, but the public is sceptical.

Trump traces back Hillary’s success to her gender. Elizabeth Warren talks about Bernie Sanders’s alleged comment on how he thinks a president cannot be a woman.[i] The fact that gender gives ground for a political discussion is distressing.

With the 2020 US presidential election so close it is worth asking “Do Americans see a lady as their president in the future?”. Can a woman be fairly considered for the leading executive position?

In general, sexism influences people’s attitudes towards female politicians regardless of any personal attributes a candidate possesses. One sexist threat to women’s electoral chances is that people’s conception of what a woman should be like, and the characteristics of a leader, do not overlap.[ii] It seems like men do not have to pass one level of examination to find out whether they are fit to be leaders solely because political roles are associated with male traits. This results in a woman seeing her likability drop as she fulfils what is expected of a potential leader and ‘fails’ as a lady. In Hilary Clinton’s words: women’s ambitiousness and thirst for success result in dropping likability.[iii] Research shows that likability -a key component of electability- is more deal-breaking for women than for men. A man is more likely to be supported if he is disliked than a woman.[iv]

Are female candidates electable? This question is dominating the media’s coverage on the potential presidential candidates.[v] Julia Kohler[vi] questions what would have happened if the conversations had shifted from evaluating women’s suitability for office to focusing on how women have secured unprecedented achievements. The immense say in state legislative matters is hardly a small success. Warren has approached the issue of women’s electability directly emphasising how she and Senator Amy Klobuchar have won many elections. Statistically, there is no evidence that women have less potential to win[vii]. Studies say that when women are on the ballot, they have the same chances to secure a victory as men. Women’s disadvantaged electability is a myth.

When a male candidate loses no one question whether men can win. These men are regarded as individuals who were unfavoured for the position. When a female candidate loses the question remains: “Is it even possible for women to win?”. “Is it safe to choose a woman?” -not specifically this candidate but generally women. It is frightening to see how a female candidate not only has to shape how people perceive her as an individual, but ultimately her destiny lies in whether people still think gender is relevant in matters where it should not be. 

The Ipsos survey[viii] shows that while 74% of Democrats and Independents would be comfortable with a woman as president, people’s perception of their neighbours’ approach was worrisome. Only 33% believed that their neighbours would be comfortable with a woman leading the country. While people would support a female president, they believe that others are less inclined to do so. It is dangerously influential to make calculations on what others might do. Pollsters ask voters who they would vote for and based on personal calculations they pick one because they believe him/her to be the most electable[ix]. The result is statistics and media coverage expressing how much more that person is more favoured, and the picture of his/her increased electability is reinforced, while others’ electability is further crashed.

An interesting account comes from the 2020 CNN report[x] where the question of whether a woman can acquire the Oval Office in the US showed there is more doubt among women than men. While 7% of men partaking in the survey said a no to women’s capability to become president, 18% of the women thought it was unimaginable. Why would women believe so strongly in not gaining a seat at the world leaders’ table? Poloni-Staudinger[xi] and Strachan, co-authors of “Why Don’t Women Rule the World: Understanding Women’s Civic and Political Choices,” commented in The Washington Post that the association of politics with a male character is so deeply entrenched in people’s minds that women might refrain from pursuing a career in this field for fear of appearing aggressive -a trait not acceptable for a female figure. Even if they do want a political career they might be “punished” for acting in an “out-of-ordinary” way. All this due to political victory being viewed as conditional upon “typical” male characteristics -fighting, self-promotion. Despite Hilary Clinton proving that women can receive the support and nomination of a major political party, and win the popular vote, people still have their doubts about a female president.

It seems like females have been successfully minimising the open criticism against their gender – a strong majority would be comfortable with a female president. Now they have to tackle the collective notion that women are not electable. If the questioning women’s electability were stopped, if voters were not confronted with theoretical discussions on whether others would like a female president, planting a seed of doubt that their vote for the woman will vanish in the sea of votes for a ‘more electable’, they might cast their votes confidently. As Betsy Fischer Martin, the executive director of American University’s Women & Politics Institute said voters have been pressured with the idea through media channels that women struggle to be electable. This perpetuates the idea that the majority would not vote for women.[xii]

Women in Iowa express exactly these sentiments[xiii]. They are for a woman, but they do not know if others are there yet. They are distrustful due to political reasons -the loss of Hilary Clinton- and also due to personal encounters of sexist actions. Some are concerned that the prevailing belief is that it is not safe to send a woman up against Trump. Hilary -apparently representing all female politicians- has failed and another woman cannot take down Trump. Women have already tried. As a summary Avalanche Strategy Poll[xiv] shows that gender is a major factor influencing electability. 69% of those marking gender as a pillar to electability were females. Gender influences electability not because Americans question women’s capabilities, but they doubt that America is willing to elect a female president. 62% of those recognising gender’s importance to electability specifically state that they do not put faith in others to elect a woman. This shows the extent to which many women are disillusioned in today’s system and atmosphere. The problem is not so much of personally accepting a female president, but more of the doubt whether others can make peace with such a development.


[i] Gross, E. L. (2020) ‘Electability And Likability: Why Are These Questions For Women Only?’ Forbes, 15.01.2020, Available under: https://www.forbes.com/sites/elanagross/2020/01/15/electability-and-likability-why-are-these-questions-for-women-only/#3c32b713fc36

[ii] Agarwal, Dr. P. (2018) ’Not Very Likeable: Here Is How Bias Is Affecting Women Leaders’ Forbes, 23.10.2018, Available under: https://www.forbes.com/sites/pragyaagarwaleurope/2018/10/23/not-very-likeable-here-is-how-bias-is-affecting-women-leaders/#16e7d0eb295f

[iii] Gross (i)

[iv] A Barbara Lee Family Foundation Research Memo (2016) Politics is Personal: Keys to Likeability and Electability for Women, Barbara Lee Family Foundation

[v] Nilsen, E. (2020) ‘Voters are back to worrying whether a woman can win’ Vox, 29.01.2020, Available under: https://www.vox.com/2020/1/29/21060286/electability-whether-a-woman-can-win-2020

[vi] Kohler, J. (2020) ‘It’s Time to Debunk the Idea that Women Aren’t ‘Electable’’ The Nation 09.03.2020, Available under: https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/women-candidates-electability/

[vii]Steinhauer, J. (2019) ‘Gender Gap Closes When Everyone’s on the Ballot, Study Shows’ The New York Times 24.06.2019, Available under: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/24/us/politics/candidates-women-people-of-color-elections.html

[viii] IPSOS (2019) Nominating Woman or Minority Come Second to Nominating Candidate Who Can Beat Trump, IPSOS 17.06.2019

[ix]Seitz-Wald, A. (2019) ’’Electability’ is the most important, least understood word in the 2020 race’

 NBC News 23.06.2019 Available under: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/electability-eye-beholder-what-hell-do-we-actually-know-about-n1020576

[x] CNN (2020) SSRS 22.01.2020 Available under: http://cdn.cnn.com/cnn/2020/images/01/22/rel1b.-.2020.pdf

[xi] Scott, E. (2020) ’1 in 5 women doubt a woman can win the presidency’ The Washington Post 23.01.2020 Available under:https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/01/23/one-five-women-doubt-that-woman-can-win-presidency/

[xii] Nilsen (v)

[xiii] Jaffe, A., Pace, J. and Woodall H. (2019) ’Nominate a woman? Some Democratic women aren’t so sure’ AP News 28.04.2019 Available under:https://apnews.com/36a56a82abaf4eab89895f4ff45fabb9

[xiv] Avalanche Strategy (2019) Electability Reflects What Americans Believe is Possible Avalanche Strategy Available under:https://www.avalanchestrategy.com/electability

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