Moats: Gender Roles In Politics

Apr 8, 2019

Gender roles in politics usually get discussed in relation to women and the pressure they face always to be nice and unthreatening — competent, but not too smart.

Men get a pass for all kinds of behavior that would never be permitted for a woman. Bernie Sanders comes across as angry, gruff, dogmatic which is part of his appeal. For him charm might be counted as frivolous.

I’ve covered Vermont politics for about 40 years and during that time I saw how Bernie’s popularity was undimmed by his generally scornful treatment of the Vermont press, while women like former governor Madeleine Kunin struggled to thread the needle between charming and strong.

At the same time, male politicians face expectations of their own. Anyone who comes across as namby-pamby is going to be in trouble.

A reputation for arrogance didn’t hurt former governors Richard Snelling or Howard Dean, and their opponents, male and female, usually looked weak by comparison.

In 2016, Donald Trump was able to exploit the bias against so-called wimps by ridiculing his Republican opponents — and demonstrating the degree to which men can get away with almost anything if they convince enough people they’re strong.

Now it’s anyone’s guess — whether voters next year will prefer a gruff and humorless battler like Bernie, or a gentler soul, like Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Jay Inslee or Pete Buttigieg.

Or maybe voters will be drawn to one of the women in the field, all of whom must also navigate the waters of gender expectations. Kunin has written eloquently about how women have to be tough but nice — but not too tough, and not too nice.

Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand come across as tough and smart. So does Amy Klobuchar, who’s also reputed to be hard on her staff — an old story with regard to Bernie, but potentially dangerous for a woman.

These are considerations of image and persona, not even touching the ideas and policies that might be associated with these candidates. The reality is that voters look at policy through the prism of personality, and how that prism shapes our views could determine what happens in the election ahead.