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Students and experts on female presidential candidates

February 27, 2019

 

In 2016, three women contended for the top job in the country. At this point, six are running. 

 

A historic number of women are in the race for president, setting up a crowded primary, a struggle for power and a prospective general election between a president accused of misogyny and an emboldened nominee hoping to break the “highest, hardest” glass ceiling. 

 

“The U.S. is ready” to elect a woman as president of the United States and “so are students,” according to Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University.

 

But, she added in an email to the Independent Collegian, “we may have some work to do to ensure that implicit bias doesn’t get in the way of good candidates prevailing.” 

 

This sort of unconscious judgment, coupled with outright gendered stereotypes, could fog a campaign marked with a diverse set of women running for the presidency.

 

Renee Heberle, a professor of political science specializing in contemporary critical and feminist theory, encouraged students to be mindful of sexism as they watch the seemingly wall-to-wall campaign coverage playing over cable news and their Twitter feeds.  

 

She recommended focusing on the ways in which attention to the candidates’ appearance diverts the focus away from “the kinds of issues and policies and philosophical questions that [people should] care about.”

 

While admitting this sort of attention is drawn to men as well (Donald Trump’s appearance was a point of criticism in the last election), she said, in terms of women,  the conversation can turn “to the distractions of ‘what is she wearing, what is her style, how did she comport herself physically.’” Heberle said it takes away from substantive debate.

 

And as past presidential campaigns have exemplified, it is not just female candidates’ looks that grab attention; the way they speak does too. 

 

Heberle referred to an often-cited example from the 2016 election. 

 

During the campaign, political observers painted Hillary Clinton as shrill, Heberle said. “That’s a stereotype that undercuts her legitimacy as a leader. Whereas if a man speaks with the same kind of tone of voice, he’s being assertive.” 

 

Thomas of the Institute for Higher Democracy at Tufts echoed that we expect men to react assertively, if not ruthlessly. On the other hand, we think of women as nurturing and ethical. 

 

“When women act in ways that are inconsistent with the stereotypes, people have an internal reaction that they don’t understand,” Thomas said. “People need to be educated to resist stereotypes.”

 

To curb the subtle forms of implicit bias, stereotyping and sexism, Heberle suggests taking a ‘see something, say something’ approach.  

 

Say something when you see misconceptions coming from others and yourself, Heberle said, adding “don’t be afraid of it. There’s a lot of fear in the discourse about implicit bias…It’s not a condemnation of character—of your own character or anybody else’s—to start seeing these things and addressing them. It could lead to much better leadership emerging.”

 

A set of students commented on the historic number of women running and grappled with the ways in which they see sexism when discussing politics with their peers. 

 

Chloe McCammon, a second-year political science major, views the number of women running as an accomplishment and a sort of political precedent that will encourage other women to seek office from the local level to the national one. 

 

In terms of sexist remarks, she hears a common refrain when discussing women and the presidency with others: “Women are much too emotional to hold the highest office.”

 

She also said people assume women are unprepared. 

 

“I just kind of ignore [the sexist remarks],” McCammon said. “It bothers me to talk to people who don’t know politics. It’s hard to talk to people who don’t actually understand.”

 

Robby Shear, a first-year student studying social science, was similarly enthusiastic about the list of women who have declared their candidacies. 

 

“Historically, white men have run the show,” Shear said. “Barack Obama was the first transition away from that [norm], and he made a lot of progress, and so I’m excited to see what females of any race bring to the table. I think [a female president] is going to be a good change when it comes.” 

 

The only time Shear hears hints of sexism when discussing women in politics is when he is at home talking to his friends with right-leaning parents.

 

Most of those in his circle on campus are as excited as he is and feel hopeful about the moment. 

 

Sofia Rodriguez, vice president of the student body, shared similar views in an email.

 

She too called this a prolific opportunity and said it breaks women out of the confined boxes in which they have long been placed. 

 

Rodriguez notices hints of sexism on social media and cited a familiar unfair critique: “Women may make irrational decisions if they were given such a high position in our government.”    

 

As candidates campaign for months to come, “students, everyone really, needs to watch for the good, old-fashioned double standard,” Thomas said. 

 

“The challenge is checking our own expectations and socialization.”

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