This week was a double barrel blast to the notion that what American politics needs is more “likeable,” ever-smiling, milquetoast women. Instead the nation’s attention was riveted as two steel-willed women heeded the call of the House of Representatives and appeared at impeachment hearings to do the hard work of reclaiming our democracy. Ambassador Marie Yovanavich and Foreign Affairs Specialist Fiona Hill for a brief moment seemed to leapfrog over the “likeability” factor that has sandbagged American Presidential candidates, hobbled our most accomplished politicians and driven women from public life. When the stakes were high America temporarily suspended it’s demand for female smiles and pleas for acceptance. In that moment we got a glimpse of our future and our promise. Unlikeable women just may be what is needed to save American democracy.
Regardless of one’s political party, one could not help but be stunned by the enormous patriotism, staunch reserve and the non-partisan, just the facts presentation of both witnesses. Both provided credible evidence of issues that raise impeachment concerns. Dr. Yovanovitch spent decades fighting Ukranian corruption overseas only to see her efforts reduced to a school yard jibe from the President that she was “bad news.” The move to eliminate her and clear the path for a more pliable ambassador attentive to the President’s personal interests only made her strength more clear. Also, Dr. Hill, a Harvard-trained Russia specialist, who is widely recognized as a leading expert in the field, documented how American foreign policy interests with Ukraine were being reduced and compromised by the President’s insistence that public officials attend to what was actually a domestic “political errand.” We were and rightly should be aghast at these accomplished women’s reduction to mere trivial characterizations and assignment to trivial tasks.
As gender studies scholars we are all too familiar with the Hilary Clinton problem of American Presidential politics. Clinton did not invent this problem but she has come to represent it. It is also referred to in some contexts as the ‘double bind’: women must seem likeable to American voters (meaning soft and feminine) to get votes, but if they are too likeable voters will not trust them to do the hard work of running the free world. As a result female politicians whip saw back and forth between likeability and stoicism – a problem that then makes them seem inauthentic to American voters. Hill and Yovanavitch may come to represent the moment when we clear away the likeability cobwebs that cloud our assessment of female strength and leadership. America can now see clearly as a result of the examples they provided.
Certainly the spectre of sexism loomed in press coverage. There is nothing some press pundits love more than proof of an emotional woman. Ample press time was spend on Ambassador Sondland’s account that Dr. Hill as “shaking” and “upset” when she confronted him about his participation in Guiliani’s mission in Ukraine to launch an investigation into the Biden family. Also ample time was spent on Dr. Yovanavitch’s comment that she “turned white” and the blood drained from her face when she heard Trump’s characterization of her activities. It seemed that these strong women in some accounts would be reduced to mere moments when they seemed capable of dissolving into tears or suffering a fainting spell. Yet we submit that neither of these moments of emotion were sufficient to distract from the picture of strength these women painted for the American people
Furthermore, the adoption of truly feminist values means that emotion gets credited in political debates. It is not as a distraction. Rather, when displayed in measured tones, it can be a source of insight. For example, we should recoil in horror at the notion of keeping children cages. Feminist values should make us reassess the ‘emotion’ attacks levied against female candidates on the Presidential debate stage and in our political commentary. Should we credit Joe Biden’s allegation that Elizabeth Warren is too angry? Will Kamala Harris fall prey to the angry woman stereotype too as a way of discrediting he? Dr. Hill acknowledged that women who become angry are perceived as “emotional,” irrespective of whether such anger is grounded in deep concerns about urgent threats to national security. She is right. Instead of asking whether Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar are angry we might do better to ask what they are angry about. Instead of asking whether they are too angry we might do better to ask why are our male candidates so sanguine and affably optimistic about the state of American democracy and politics.
We suspect many Americans are ready and willing to break the old mold of leadership in favor of a new day. We suspect they are capable of seeing female strength and assessing emotion intelligently, in both women and men. And we fear the future for an America that refuses to see strong, competent women as likeable, competent and electable. The examples are before us. The time has come to ask whether the American voter is a likeable character, for we will not like ourselves very much if we lose a generation of essential female leadership because of America’s unhealthy attachment to gender stereotyping.