LAST WEEK, I ARGUED that Barack Obama could be elected president partly because he defies white people’s stereotypes of blacks (“Black Like Me,” February 5). As it happens, I think Hillary Clinton is electable, too, but partly for the opposite reason: because she confirms people’s stereotypes of women.
Let me explain. The research on female electability is surprisingly rosy. As the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Kathleen Dolan put it in a 2006 paper for the Midwest Political Science Association, “A significant body of work demonstrates that women candidates are just as successful as similarly situated men.” Of course, women are still woefully underrepresented in gubernatorial mansions and in Congress, but that’s not because they don’t win; it’s mostly because they don’t run. The reasons are complex: Women have greater family responsibilities (many don’t run until their children are grown, which gives them less time to climb the electoral ladder), party leaders are less likely to recruit women, and women are more likely to doubt their own qualifications for office. For the health of American democracy, these are important concerns. But not for Clinton in 2008: She’s already in.
That’s the good news. Here’s the problem. The evidence suggests that Americans are slightly less willing to elect women to executive offices than to legislative ones, perhaps because of deep-seated stereotypes about women’s leadership abilities. No one knows for sure, since there have been so few serious female presidential candidates, but those stereotypes could be a bigger obstacle when it comes to the highest executive office in the land. And, most worrisome of all, they could be a much bigger obstacle in a time of war.
Just ask Jennifer Lawless. A couple of years ago, the Brown University political scientist looked at survey data from August and September 2002. As she noted in a subsequent paper for Political Research Quarterly, the percentage of Americans saying they would vote for a qualified woman for president had been going up and up—from more than 80 percent in the 1980s to almost 95 percent by the late ‘90s. But, according to her data, gathered a year after September 11, it plummeted to 65 percent. When Lawless investigated further, she found the reason: As people turned their attention to terrorism and war, they prioritized characteristics(self-confidence, assertiveness, aggressiveness) that they associated with men and devalued those (compassion, sensitivity,compromise) that they associated with women. That was particularly bad news for female Democrats, since people tend to associate the party with those same feminine traits—meaning that female Democratic candidates are perceived as doubly soft.
It wasn’t only the new national security focus that hurt women. It was the newly hawkish mood. The more aggressive a person’s foreign policy views, Lawless noted, the more likely he or she was to support men. A subsequent study by Johns Hopkins University’s Erika Falk and the University of Arizona’s Kate Kenski reached the same conclusion, finding that people who backed the Iraq war were 30 points more likely to prefer a generic male presidential candidate,while those who opposed it were seven points more likely to favor a woman. September 11, in other words, upended the conventional wisdom about women and electability. “We know, then, only that women are as likely as men to win elections when domestic policy and issues on which women are perceived as the stereotypical experts occupy the political agenda,” wrote Lawless. But in wartime? “A woman in the White House? Probably not.”
Had Clinton been running for president against John McCain in 2002 or 2004, in other words, she would have faced a serious gender disadvantage. But what Lawless couldn’t foresee was how radically the nation’s mood would shift. Today, national security remains a dominant issue, but only because President Bush won’t heed the public’s desire to get out of Iraq. In growing numbers, Americans have not only turned against the war, they have turned against hawkishness in general. The share of the public that says the United States should increase its military presence overseas has dropped from almost one-half in 2002 to less than one-third in 2006. According to an October 2006 study by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, 65 percent of Americans think the Bush administration has been too militaristic, while 67 percent say it should focus more on diplomacy. “Americans perceive that the primary lesson of the September 11th attacks,” declared the study, “is that the United States needs to cooperate more with other countries.”
Americans want a foreign policy that is more cooperative, more sensitive, and less aggressive—exactly the qualities they associate with women. Not coincidentally, the percentage of Americans who say they will vote for a female presidential candidate has returned to roughly 90 percent. And the approval ratings for John McCain—the contender most associated with an aggressive, ultra-tough foreign policy—have crashed. A February 2006 poll found that, when asked whether a man or a woman would do a better job as commander-in-chief, respondents were evenly split. And, when asked who would do a better job on foreign policy, the hypothetical female candidate led by eight points. It stands to reason. If voters who oppose the Iraq war remain more likely to support female candidates, as they were several years ago, that’s good news for Clinton, because there are a lot more of them now.
That’s ironic, of course, given that Clinton supported the war. Once upon a time, appearing hawkish seemed central to her electoral viability. Today, that hawkishness could be her greatest liability in a primary campaign against Obama and John Edwards, both of whom are running to her left on foreign policy. But, if she wins the nomination, gender stereotypes may come to her aid. Research shows that female candidates—especially Democratic ones—are perceived as more liberal than they really are. In Clinton’s case in 2008, that may be good news. She may find it easier to run as an antiwar candidate because that is how people are predisposed to see her. Ever since she entered the U.S. Senate, Clinton has been trying to overcome people’s ingrained perceptions. Now she must hope she hasn’t succeeded too well.
This article appeared in the February 12, 2007 issue of the magazine.