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With the conclusion of the recent vice-presidential debate between Senator Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence, there was a global appreciation for the moment when Kamala Harris stood her ground and said “…Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” But why was this such a radical act for a woman in politics? And why has media coverage of her been so much more critical than it has been for her male counterparts?

This article explores how the media and society make it much harder for women – especially women of colour – to run for and achieve political positions in America. Focus is usually on institutional issues, such as access to education, that often restrict women. However, it is important to explore the challenges faced by women in politics within supposedly progressive countries like America. In such countries, challenges faced by women are so normalized and ingrained in society that they are rarely identified and spoken of as harmful.

Personal Attacks and Insulting Comments

When women run for positions of power in America, they are often met with personal attacks that are not related to their ability to lead or their qualifications.

These attacks usually pertain to their appearance, relationships, such as marital status, and personality. Small ‘mistakes’ or differences in their appearance or relationships are fixated on and used to tear down their credibility and likeableness. For example, when Hilary Clinton ran for President in 2016, the media fixated on and often mocked her hairstyle, pantsuits, her “ageing” face and more. This is most often because society is, by default, fixated on a woman’s appearance, which it sees as her greatest asset instead of what she says or does. Anyone who steps out of the box of what a woman should look like – even if that is as small as wearing a pantsuit instead of a dress – is punished with insults and loses her public credibility. A study from Dartmouth College found that women politicians whose faces are unambiguously “feminine” are more likely to win elections. This fixation on appearance also distracts from the women’s actual qualifications, achievements, policy proposals and leadership qualities. It results in less space and media coverage for voters to learn more about why they should (or should not) vote for them.

In addition to personal attacks, women candidates are often subject to extremely insulting and derogatory comments. These comments would never (or rarely) be levelled against a male politician. What is worse is that these insults are often gendered slurs. “Bitch”, used against Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) by Republican Congressman Ted Yoho, serves to insult women who are assertive, ambitious, or merely take up space. More specifically, Yoho labelled AOC a “fucking bitch” simply because she called out his rude response to her statement that there is a link between poverty and New York’s increase in crime. President Trump has called Kamala Harris “nasty”, “mean” and a “monster”, probably because she is a brilliant debater and did not shy away from attacking opposing arguments. Kamala Harris is especially renowned for the way she acted during the congressional hearings against Brett Kavanaugh and the democratic debates. These traits would be otherwise celebrated in men. There are many such instances springing from society’s normalization of the degradation and disrespect of women.

Higher policing of a woman politician’s behaviour

The aforementioned Dartmouth study concluded that while women candidates have to retain associations with traditional femininity, they still have to evoke perceptions of competence along with other ‘masculine’ traits.

A common insult used against women is that they are “overly-emotional” or “hysterical” often when they are merely speaking with emotion or pointing out wrongdoings. In contrast, the same emotions in a man will be seen as confidence. In fact, more than 1 in 8 Americans believe women are not as emotionally suited as men to serve in political office. This dangerous stereotype is rooted in dismissing women’s valid concerns and withholding agency. This serves to keep them out of positions of power. This also allows opposition candidates to dismiss all of a woman candidate’s policy proposals and to undermine her so that she loses credibility with potential voters. As a result, women politicians have to be extra cautious to seem composed. For example, after the explosive 2020 presidential debate, most people applauded Joe Biden for his iconic “Will you shut up, man?” moment and when he called Donald Trump a “clown”. At the same time, however, many recognized that if Kamala Harris, a woman of colour, were to say something similar to Pence during the vice presidential debate she would be dragged by the media and republicans as hysterical, easily annoyed, mean, unprofessional, etc. Although she did not say anything as explosive as Biden in the vice-presidential debate, her “I’m speaking” moment became viral and has garnered both praise and criticism. This shows how normalized it is for women to be silent in the face of hostility, that Harris simply taking a stand and reclaiming her space to speak was so radical. Interestingly, her protest did not stop Pence from continuing his interruption for some time, showing how even when women do speak up for themselves they are easily dismissed.

In addition to their appearances, women are still forced to adhere to traditional gendered ideas of femininity. This involves not being overtly aggressive or ambitious and emphasizing parts of their life that are ‘acceptable’ in a woman such as being a mother or a wife. During the 2016 US presidential race, Hillary Clinton’s Twitter bio read “Wife, mom, grandma, women+kids advocate, FLOTUS, Senator…” – an order which many perceived to be a nod to society’s prescription of women’s priorities. Her concerns were justified. The media insulted Hillary Clinton by calling her hysterical and overly emotional while simultaneously mocking her of emasculating her husband.

Overall, it seems that women politicians have the burden of having to walk a very fine line between being perceived as too “feminine” (emotional and soft) and being perceived as too “masculine” (assertive, dominant, etc.)

Women of Colour

What society hates more than a woman in a position of power is a woman of colour in a position of power, especially Black women. Racist slurs are added to gendered ones and hurled at women of colour who dare to take up space in a white male dominated field.

One of the best examples is Michelle Obama, who although did not run for office, played a huge role in the chances of Obama being elected. She was called “Obama’s Baby Mama”, “an angry black woman”, “Obama’s bitter half” and even “a[n] ape in heels”. These incredibly dehumanizing and offensive remarks make it easier for voters to disrespect her and her husband. The change in Michelle Obama’s appearance – including her hairstyle and her clothes – and personality after the Obamas left the White House in 2016 showed how much she had to consciously repress herself. While in the White House she tended to look and sound more “white” and therefore more “acceptable”.

Achieving positions of political power for women of colour is exceptionally difficult, given America’s history of dehumanizing and mistreating people of colour. When you add discriminatory gender norms to the balance, a woman of colour is, by default, seen as less credible, likeable and level-headed as their fellow white women candidates.

This is why Kamala Harris, being chosen as the vice-presidential candidate, was both historical and radical. Although long overdue, her nomination legitimized the achievements, intelligence, and leadership skills of a Black and South Asian Woman. This was unprecedented, and therefore, is powerful.

Is it getting better?

The new generation of political leaders is starting to make a substantial change to the treatment of women in politics. The most notable here would be the squad: AOC, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib, all recently elected congresswomen of colour. They have started to push back against gendered stereotypes and degrading comments. For example, after Yoho called AOC a “bitch”, she delivered a brilliant speech in Congress on how the use of violent language against women has become common and accepted, and how men need to be held more accountable for their harmful actions. In a context where most women politicians have become so used to ignoring derogatory and discriminatory comments, her public address of her personal experience forced fellow politicians and the American people to acknowledge the prevailing culture of violence against women. Ilhan Omar, who openly celebrates being Black and Muslim, has often been falsely accused by Trump as not belonging to America – where she found refuge and citizenship as a child. Trump even told Omar to “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested place from which [she] came”. Her public denouncement of him and his racism was another rare instance of a woman of colour directly standing up to sexist, racist and Islamophobic remarks.

‘The squad’ also stands up to the policing of women politicians’ appearance by embracing more ‘feminine’ and culturally and religiously important clothing. AOC’s iconic red lips and hoops, Pressley’s braids and bold lipstick, Tlaib’s traditional Palestinian thobe and Omar’s hijab are all small ways in which the ‘squad’ are celebrating femininity – often dismissed as frivolous, and their own cultures and religions. These are powerful statements that women of all colours and religions, in all their powerful femininity, belong to Congress and to global leadership. 

The increasing public outrage at the double standards faced by women combined with the pushback from a new generation of empowered female politicians revolutionizes a changing landscape for women in politics. One where women are afforded equal treatment and as much respect as their male counterparts, and where their leadership and skills are valued. This will not only encourage more women to run for elections, but also ensure that more women are elected into political positions of power.