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The bias against female presidential candidates is real

A philosopher explains what women are up against.

Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren embrace after the Democratic presidential debate in July 2019 in Detroit, Michigan.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The feud between Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — and their supporters — over whether Sanders really questioned if the US would elect a woman president is now in its fourth day.

Before the debate, the Sanders campaign reportedly encouraged supporters to go negative on Warren, partly out of fear that she can’t win over “disaffected working-class voters.” Later, CNN reported that Sanders told Warren privately in 2018 that a woman likely couldn’t defeat President Donald Trump in 2020 — a report based on two people Warren spoke to after the meeting and two sources “familiar” with it.

Sanders, meanwhile, denies he ever said such a thing. Asked by a moderator at Tuesday’s debate why he said he “did not believe that a woman could win the election,” Sanders flatly denied it: “I didn’t say it,” he said. “Anybody knows me knows that it’s incomprehensible that I think that a woman couldn’t be president of the United States. How could anybody in a million years not believe that a woman could become president of the United States?”

Meanwhile, Warren affirmed her original account of the conversation with Sanders, and after the debate there was an awkward encounter between the two. “I think you called me a liar on national TV,” she told Sanders.

Let’s set aside for the moment whether Sanders said what Warren says he said. The dispute between them touches on an important question that doesn’t admit any easy answers.

Is it true that it would be difficult for a woman to win a presidential election, especially against a misogynist like Trump? If so, what is unique about a presidential race that makes it different from congressional elections — where women candidates triumphed in 2018?

To get some answers, I reached out to Cornell University philosopher Kate Manne, author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. In a Twitter thread, Manne suggested that Sanders should have owned the implications of his remarks and admitted what we all know is likely true: sexism will be weaponized against a female candidate.

We discussed what she meant by that, and arguably an even more pressing question: How can we acknowledge this reality in a way that doesn’t reinforce it or turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy?

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Let’s assume Sanders told Warren that a woman can’t defeat Trump in 2020 for the sake of this conversation. Is he right?

Kate Manne

I think he is wrong, but it’s not an unreasonable claim. And I should say that even if he said something much weaker than that, he has admitted to saying that Trump would weaponize sexism and misogyny against Warren, which is an odd thing to bring up unless you’re claiming that a woman wouldn’t have a realistic shot at the presidency.

But leaving that aside, I think it’s wrong for subtle reasons. It’s true that women are up against it in political races and we have anecdotal evidence from the last election where we had a far stronger female candidate beaten out by a terribly weak, incompetent, and immoral male candidate. And there’s just a wealth of empirical evidence from social psychology that when a man and a woman go head to head for a masculine-coded leadership position, there tends to be a marked bias in favor of the male candidate and against the female candidate.

I say this idea is wrong because there is also evidence that highly communal women can overcome that bias.

Sean Illing

What do you mean by that?

Kate Manne

Well, there are some excellent studies by Madeline Heilman of NYU and her colleagues investigating whether the marked bias I’m talking about can be mitigated if a woman is shown to be super compassionate, or more accurately perceived as super compassionate, caring, empathetic, nurturing, and kind. When that happens, the bias against women seems to disappear, or at least it’s reduced significantly. So if Sanders is wrong, I think it’s because someone like Warren actually has a pretty good shot because she’s perceived as hyper-communal.

Sean Illing

What is it about Trump, in particular, that makes the gender bias such a pressing issue?

Kate Manne

It seems like he’s the kind of candidate that would bring out a lot of people who want to vote for a strong man, or a perceived strong man, over a female candidate. He’s going to be a lightning rod for the sexist and misogynistic voter, whether they’re driven by implicit biases or explicit beliefs that a woman can’t be sufficiently competent to be president. You’d have to be very optimistic about gender egalitarian progress not to think that he’s someone who would enable and empower the sexist and misogynistic voters.

Sean Illing

In other words, because he’s a misogynist, Trump puts misogyny on the table and therefore activates misogynist voters.

Kate Manne

Yes, that’s a really good way of putting it.

Sean Illing

Are the dynamics for women candidates different in a presidential race? What makes the presidency different from congressional or gubernatorial races?

Kate Manne

I think we should be more attentive to the empirical evidence on this. There are some really nice studies showing that when it comes to races even for the Senate, men and women who are similarly described, there’s not necessarily a strong bias against women.

But there’s a study in which researchers manipulated the key variable and found that this changed as soon as you described a woman as power-seeking. So in one of the manipulations, they described the woman as “one of the most ambitious politicians in a state” who always “had a strong will to power” and has always been “hungry.” Now, these are all keys to success in politics. And when men were described in these terms, they weren’t penalized. But when women were described this way, it became an issue.

So perceived power-seeking is a problem for women, and the presidency is probably the most powerful position in the world, so it’s not surprising that this would be problem.

Sean Illing

I’m curious if you think partisanship alters the logic of this in any way. If, for instance, an extremely hawkish conservative woman was running against Trump, does that play out any differently? Or does gender bias trump party politics?

Kate Manne

That’s a great question. So this is somewhat speculative, but my hunch is that there is a kind of mediating factor here that’s related to the perceived communality. So if a woman is perceived on the left as a hawk, she’ll be perceived as not communal and that’s going to really cost her. I think that’s especially true for center-left women. People who would otherwise vote for them are probably more suspicious of them than they would be of a male counterpart because they’re perceived as not empathetic and compassionate enough.

On the other hand, if you’re a right-wing woman, the way to be perceived as communal is to be more conservative, more emphatic on so-called family values, more inclined to defend the status quo when it comes to American interests abroad. So I think what you might find, and again, this would need empirical verification, is that perceptions of communality require different behavior depending on whether you’re on the left or right.

Sean Illing

There’s a tension here that I find difficult to navigate. How do we acknowledge the reality that sexism exists and that women face an enormous electoral disadvantage, at least in some circumstances, while at the same time fighting against it effectively?

Kate Manne

That’s the big question. I struggle with it, too. I think a lot of it has to do with the spirit in which these questions are raised. One reason people are suspicious of Sanders is that telling a female potential presidential candidate about these biases, at that stage, doesn’t seem diplomatic or helpful. But I do think there’s a way of acknowledging these biases that actually increases the chance of combating them successfully by saying, “Look, a woman would be really up against it in certain ways and we’re going to have to be vigilant in fighting for her if we believe she’s the best candidate.”

That’s what I’ve tried to say with respect to Elizabeth Warren. I think we have to be very careful about certain stories getting unwarranted traction or of double standards being applied. And maybe even more importantly, we have to be careful not to celebrate her on the wrong grounds. The research about hyper-communal women with power being acceptable worries me because it feeds into gender biases about how women are supposed to be — perfectly empathetic, perfectly compassionate, perfectly safe.

So we have to acknowledge that the biases really make this tough for women, but not impossible, and that there may be female candidates who are really worth fighting for, and then we have to go out and do that work. I don’t think it works to just live in denial about the biases.

Sean Illing

In the end, it feels like there just isn’t a good way to talk about this, especially if you’re a female candidate. If you bring it up, you’re playing “identity politics,” or the victim card. If you ignore it, it never goes away. It’s an inescapable trap.

Kate Manne

I completely agree with that. There’s no good way for Warren to bring this up that won’t hurt her with a significant number of people who share a very common implicit bias against women drawing moral attention to their own predicament. So I think this is true not only of politicians, but women generally, trying to draw attention to ways in which she faced sexism, and misogyny tends to attract more of it.

The only solution I can see is for her supporters and backers to bring up the fact that she is going to face a lot of these biases, that we have a moral responsibility not to be complacent in the face of them, but rather to fight against them. Otherwise, we’ll have a self-fulfilling prophecy on our hands where women can never win political office at this level, and instead of relying on her to bring up these factors, my preferred strategy is to try to be really clear about the biases that she’s facing and then to emphasize the fact that that doesn’t mean we should give up.

It means we should double down and fight harder if we believe she’s the best person for the job.