The sexist double standard isn’t dead but has lost its political punch, says historian and author Nancy Cohen, but that doesn’t mean that women’s political equality will happen overnight.
Has the time come for a woman president? All of us are asking ourselves this as the countdown to Election Day continues.
Nancy L. Cohen began exploring this question a while ago in doing research for her book Breakthrough: The Making of the First Woman President, published earlier this year. Drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews with women governors and senators from both political parties, experts, political operatives, and a diverse array of voters, Cohen paints a portrait of the women who are building an alternative to the old boys club and are rewriting the playbook for how women succeed in politics. Breakthrough takes on our cultural assumptions to show that the barriers that once blocked women’s ascent in politics have fallen, even more than we realize. We spoke to Cohen about what she has learned and why women need to care about this and future elections. Here is an edited version of our interview.
by Sue Tomchin
When Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher rose to power were they exceptions or true breakthroughs for women?
I think they were both. They were both exceptional women and had figured out a way to rise in a parliamentary system to become leaders of their party. Once they were in power, they set a model for the fact that women could do this.
There’s always been a lot of emphasis in the United States that a woman has to show that she’s Commander in Chief material. I don’t think that’s any more difficult for a woman to prove than it is for a man. I think that Hillary Clinton over-exaggerated this quality in 2008 to her detriment. When Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president it was still the Cold War and she exaggerated that quality more than she needed to do.
I think part of that comes from some bad advice consultants have given women leaders who then made such an effort to project toughness that they came off as cold. That’s not only a problem for a woman, that’s a problem for any politician. People don’t want a cold president. We invest so much emotional energy and project so much onto our presidents. We want our presidents to be tough but likeable. We want them to intimidate foreign leaders but we also want them to sit down and have a beer with us. They don’t seem like they can relate to regular voters’ experiences if they come off as too tough and too rigid.
When you began your book, did you have strong assumptions that were subsequently refuted by your research?
Absolutely. I think like many women I assumed that the double standard and sexism still hurt women candidates’ chances of winning. The surprising news, today in 2016, is that women aren’t losing elections because of sexism. That’s because voters care a lot more about other things. They care about political parties, ideology, even policy much more than about gender. I went through a ton of research on this about the media and about voter bias. The great news is that voters judge men and women by similar standards. Their judgments may be arbitrary and driven by emotions, but it’s not the double standard and not sexism that stops women from winning elections.
Have you had any push back on this point from those who have read your book?
Yes, and I’ve had push back from my husband on this. He couldn’t believe what I was saying and has been telling me: “No, you can’t be right.”
I don’t want people to misunderstand what I’m saying. There is no question that discrimination has kept women out of the Oval Office for much of our history. It’s been a long struggle even to get women onto the playing field. Women in politics, like women everywhere, are subject to sexism. [However], the bottom line is that people do not go into the voting booth and apply a double standard to women. At the end of the day, the sexism that women experience is not having an impact on the results of elections.
If it’s not sexism, what barriers hold women back politically?
It’s very difficult for any newcomer to break into politics today because incumbents overwhelmingly win. The number one reason is our history. Women started really far behind because of the legal and cultural discrimination against them in politics through most of our history. I found in my research that women do win elections at rates equal to men but women are running for elections at a lower rate. I think part of that is a rational calculation about how expensive it is to run for office and how difficult it is to win because there are so few open offices.
Ironically, the attention given to sexist attacks on women politicians may be part of the reason why women aren’t stepping up to run at the same rates as men are. If women think sexism is going to hold them back they are less likely to run. That’s one reason it’s so important to get this message out: We can take the sexist attacks because ultimately they aren’t going to affect whether women win or lose the election.
I read your chapter on the history of women in politics in the U.S. and I still have trouble understanding why things haven’t moved more quickly, especially in recent decades.
That’s a great question. In recent decades it hasn’t moved more quickly for two reasons. One is our institutions are hard to budge in large part because of incumbency. There haven’t been many opportunities for women to win more Senate seats, for example. Look at someone like Barbara Mikulski who was the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate in her own right. She was elected in 1986. She’s just retiring now. There are only 100 seats in the Senate. A senator who gets in fairly young occupies it for a few decades. There are only 50 governors’ mansions.
The other part of it is that the Republican Party has not made electing women a priority and in many ways posed significant obstacles to women rising in the party. The stories that former Republican Senator Olympia Snowe tells me in my book, show us part of that. The extremism on women’s issues has turned off many women who would naturally consider themselves Republican on national security or economic grounds. It’s impossible for these mainstream women to win elections in primaries given what the base of the Republican Party has become.
The Democratic Party on the national level is not doing that badly. About a third of the Democratic caucus in Congress is women and that’s actually a high level in the global statistics.
You show in your book that Americans overwhelmingly support reproductive rights. In light of this, why do state legislatures pass so many measures that are opposed to choice?
That is the big question. My last book, Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America was very much about that subject. The argument of the book is that the polarization of America over the last 40 years has been driven by a reaction against the sexual revolution, feminism and gay rights, not just in the Republican Party but also in the Democratic Party. Again, we get back to on-the-ground electoral politics.
The Right, especially the religious Right, the anti-abortion Right, decided back in the ‘70s to take a grassroots electoral approach to turning back the clock on women’s rights, gay rights and all those kind of things many of us care about. By the late ‘90s, they had complete control of the primary process in local Republican elections. Here’s what the great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover told me: They are like the 800-pound gorilla in the room—no one wants to talk about them. There is no way you can get through a Republican primary without being 100 percent pro-life—which means outlawing abortion from the moment of conception which then leads to outlawing forms of contraception.
The anti-abortion activists have success in the off-year local elections basically because people don’t pay attention. They are able to win in elections where there is low voter turnout. They took power and undermined women’s rights when we were asleep at the wheel.
Based on your research and your conversations with young people, what message would you like to convey to young women who may think that their votes really don’t matter?
I would tell a young woman that the stakes are incredibly high, and your vote absolutely matters. Since 2010, Republican state legislatures passed more than 300 laws restricting women’s access to health care, birth control, and abortion. Several states have passed laws trying to skirt the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. Well, those laws were all a result of the 2010 midterm elections, when 40 million Americans who had voted in 2008 stayed home. Among those under 30, turnout between 2008 and 2010 fell by 50 percent.
How would you rate the state of involvement of young women in political activism?
There’s a very high level of activism around reproductive rights. I’ve seen a lot of interest in politics. I think there’s a lot of online activism, for example. I don’t know whether that’s the most effective kind of activism. It’s a component of a political strategy in the 21st century. There may be a little too much of that and not enough of on the ground working in political campaigns and working in organizations. I think young women are interested and knowledgeable. They believe in women’s leadership and want to see more of that. We’ll have to wait and see whether they are going to harness their power to become a real political force.