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Credit: Alice Heyeh

Leading up to the 2016 presidential election season, Chelsea Clinton announced that she was expecting her first child, changing the nature of the upcoming election season. The question being asked was whether Hillary Clinton would still be able to run for president despite her responsibilities as a grandparent. Clearly, sexism is an issue that prevails in American politics. But change won’t come about until we critically evaluate our biases and those of society. 

Nobody ever asked Mitt Romney in 2012 if he would be able to serve as president while being a grandparent to his over 18 grandchildren.  

Still, the different standards and scrutiny women face reach far beyond family life. 

One of the earliest obstacles women face when entering a political race is the battle for “likability,” something that has been proven to be critical to female candidates’ election success while not being an important factor at all for men vying for high office. 

In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton fought every day to seem likable in the eyes of the voters and faced constant scrutiny by the media. This January after having announced her presidential campaign, the first question asked of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) was about her apparent likability among voters. The same goes for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) who, before she had even announced her presidential bid, faced comments about her low likability and how that supposedly spells doom for her chances to win.

In 2010 researchers at Harvard found that “voters regarded ‘power-seeking’ women with contempt and anger,” wrote Maggie Astor of The New York Times, “but saw power-seeking men as stronger and more competent.” Ambitious women seeking high office are looked upon with disfavor and are therefore deemed — wait for it — less likable, which often sounds the death knell for their chances of winning. 

Often, when evaluating a female candidate, their appearance and physical attributes are called into question, distracting from important issues such as qualifications and policy. “Is she attractive? Look at the dress she wore when making that important announcement. Why does she shout so often? Why doesn’t she smile more often?”

“There is a narrow universe of acceptable behavior for women,” said media consultant Heidi Moore. “We see in coverage of women lawmakers that even minor flaws are treated as disqualifying while men’s flaws get brief attention but are glossed over as a case of ‘nobody’s perfect.’” Indeed, no man or woman is perfect, but only for the latter do we take the absence of unattainable perfection to brand them as unworthy of high office.

This election is no exception. Women candidates are already fighting this uphill battle in ways that male candidates are not. The undying presence of sexism is alive and well and is threatening the prospects of the four women vying for the Democratic nomination — Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand. 

Because of the real impact that sexism has on elections, these four accomplished women are forced by necessity to fight to project strength and competence while not drawing contempt and anger for their ambition; to boost their likability without having to demean themselves and downplay their strengths and qualifications. 

And if all goes well and one of these women clinches the Democratic nomination and goes up against Donald Trump in the general election, she will face the daunting task that is sexism — one that she faces everyday but this time on a much larger scale. 

So, will we finally have learned our lesson and soon shed ourselves of this double standard once and for all? I doubt it. Sexism is that yet-to-be-vanquished pre-modern relic that will haunt us for many years to come, but with more attention to this issue, more people should become increasingly aware of the double standard and factor that into their decisions at the polls.

MICHAEL A. KESHMIRI is a College senior from Stockholm, Sweden studying Political Science. His email address is mkesh@sas.upenn.edu.

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