This year’s Democratic debates have highlighted four female candidates who are competing against one another for the seat in the Oval Office. Regardless of their polling numbers, they have demonstrated that a woman can successfully compete within a male-dominated field. And yet, the Democratic debates remind us that despite the progress women have made in entering American politics, double standards have prevailed. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s need to combat interruptions from their male competitors or to simultaneously appear authoritative and compassionate reminds me of where this country was three years ago. The media and Republican voters repeatedly critiqued Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election year. While you would think the media and the electorate would learn from their past wrongdoings, they have not. It appears that double standards continue to take shape both in this year’s debates and beyond despite the record number of female presidential candidates.
One endless double standard is how men and women are described when taking on a leadership role. A man is considered a good leader if he is commanding and tough to please. If a woman tries to embody such characteristics however, she is deemed a bossy, unattractive dragon-lady. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been characterized as such, and Klobuchar has earned the same title for reportedly throwing binders and phones at her aides. Let me be clear when I say that I do not applaud Klobuchar for throwing objects at anyone, no matter how frustrated she may have been. However, I do wish to say that if Klobuchar were a man, she would not be criticized, let alone checked, for this behavior. If a male legislator had behaved this way they would still be considered a stern, reputable leader who had the right to react this way. Given that Klobuchar considers herself a stern leader with high expectations, we would hope that the electorate and the media would treat her the same way. Instead, she is seen as an abusive boss who does not have the emotional grounding to be commander in chief.
Another contradictory standard that has emerged during this debate season involves candidates’ health. Sen. Bernie Sanders suffered a heart attack early last month, and while a few articles commented on his age, it is now a month later and the topic is no longer of interest or concern. This change in events did not occur in 2016 when Hillary Clinton fainted from dehydration due to medication. That brief and mild episode prompted Donald Trump to say that Clinton “lack(ed) the mental and physical stamina” to lead the nation. This statement followed her until the day of the election, and given the electoral results, it is clear that this faulty notion stemmed from the historical sexism that this country attempts to bury.
I am currently enrolled in a class called “Self-Defense for Women,” and I recently learned some troubling statistics from my instructor .The leading cause of death for men is heart disease while the leading cause of death for women is men. The latter is typically a result of domestic abuse, car accidents and gun violence. While breast cancer is a common fatal disease for women, men continue to be the prominent cause of female fatality. So if Gabbard, Harris, Klobuchar or Warren ever have a health scare, perhaps you should keep this information in mind when heading to the ballot box
The most apparent double standard that has taken shape this year is one that does not involve any of the presidential candidates. It involves former Rep. Katie Hill. The legislator resigned last month after her husband leaked naked photos of her to a conservative website called “Red State.” These photos show Hill being intimate with a female staffer. It is unclear whether the relationship was an extra-marital affair, but Hill has stated her husband was also involved in the relationship. While it is unprofessional for a representative to have a relationship with a subordinate, this is not the first time a legislator and a staff member have engaged in a similar rendezvous. Male representatives have had affairs, typically with female staffers, for decades, and a majority of them never resigned. Hill’s case is no different, but it became a scandal because her counterpart was a woman, making Hill’s sexuality a target of exoticization and shame. I find it ironic but not at all surprising that a rising figure in the Democratic Party was asked to resign so as not to distract from the impeachment of a president who has dozens of sexual assault allegations made against him. Hill’s resignation may have allowed the impeachment scandal to take way but it made one thing very clear: that this wave of new female representatives must work harder to have a place in politics and must fight not to be removed from a government that continues to excuse male leaders’ wrongdoings.
These examples reveal that American politics is still a man’s world. I do not believe double standards will disappear if our country elects a female president next November, but perhaps these expectations will lessen knowing that our president would be the most powerful woman in the free world. While sexism is not a political issue voters are prioritizing, it is an issue that routinely benefits one half of the nation and hinders the other. Maybe this reality will be remembered on election day. Maybe this reality will be enough for voters to do what they failed to do in 2016.