Warren, Clinton and the sexist 'likability' narrative

The same day Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced plans to seek the 2020 Democratic nomination, the sexist media narratives of elections gone by staged a comeback in the form of a Politico article highlighting concerns that Warren may share too many “attributes” with Hillary Clinton to be “likable.”

For 2016 supporters of Clinton —who has often been described as “disconnected,” “flawed,” “polarizing,” and “unlikable”— the adjectives Politico ascribed to Warren sounded awfully familiar.

And yet, things were different just two years ago. While Clinton was still busy securing her spot in history as the first woman to win a major party’s nomination, some pundits lamented that the party had not chosen a more likable woman for the historic moment — a woman like, say, Elizabeth Warren.

“Want a female commander-in-chief? Do you desire an aspirational nominee? How about someone who would bring Wall Street to heel? Elizabeth Warren is all those things, in one person,” Real Clear Politics’ Carl M. Cannon wrote in April 2016.

There are many reasons why likability is a flawed metric for political candidates, men and women alike. But there is something particularly pernicious about the recent trend of evaluating women this way. Research has shown again and again that powerful women are held to different standards than men. The hypocrisy of the likability metric becomes even more clear when you compare the way Warren the potential 2020 candidate is being described with Warren the (less threatening) senator from Massachusetts.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., attends a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Dirksen Building titled 'Foreign Cyber Threats to the United States,' featuring testimony by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and others, January 5, 2016.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Armed Services Committee members (L-R) Sen. Martin Heinrich (D - NM), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) talk during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence chiefs testified to the committee about cyber threats to the United States and fielded questions about effects of Russian government hacking on the 2016 presidential election.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) (L) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) arrive for a hearing with the Director of National Intelligence and National Security Agency chief in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill January 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. The intelligence chiefs testified to the committee about cyber threats to the United States and fielded questions about effects of Russian government hacking on the 2016 presidential election.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), speaks to and meets New England voters during a rally at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday October 24, 2016.

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Mark Wahlberg, Former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis, Boston Police Commissioner Billy Evans, Former Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz, Dun 'Danny' Meng, Jessica Downes, Patrick Downes, Senator Elizabeth Warren, director Peter Berg and Harvard Law professor Bruce Mann pose on the red carpet at the 'Patriots Day' screening at the Boch Center Wang Theatre on December 14, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

(Photo by Natasha Moustache/WireImage)

Democratic Nominee for President of the United States former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), speaks to and meets New England voters during a rally at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire on Monday October 24, 2016.

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Former Red Sox player David Ortiz talks with Senator Elizabeth Warren at the 'Patriots Day' screening at the Boch Center Wang Theatre on December 14, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.

(Photo by Natasha Moustache/WireImage)

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Senator Elizabeth Warren hold a rally at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH on Oct. 24, 2016.

(Photo by Suzanne Kreiter/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at a Manchester 'New Hampshire Together' Canvass Launch event in Manchester, NH on Sept. 24, 2016.

(Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren speaks onstage at EMILY's List Breaking Through 2016 at the Democratic National Convention at Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts on July 27, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

(Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images For EMILY's List)

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, holds up copies of Wells Fargo earnings call transcripts as she questions John Stumpf, chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo, as he testifies about the unauthorized opening of accounts by Wells Fargo during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, September 20, 2016.

(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) along with members of the Democratic Women of the Senate acknowledge the crowd on the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25.

(Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) delivers remarks on the first day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III welcomes Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren on stage on Day 1 of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, July 25, 2016.

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accompanied by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks to and meets Ohio voters during a rally at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio on Monday, June 27, 2016.

(Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert airing live, Thursday July 21, 2016 in New York. With guest Elizabeth Warren .

(Photo by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) arrives in the Capitol for the on Tuesday, June 28, 2016.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) (R) meets with Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland (L), chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court, April 14, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Garland continued to place visits to Senate members after he was nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, listens as Janet Yellen, chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, testifies during a Senate Banking Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. Yellen offered a subtle change to her outlook from less than a week ago, saying she and her colleagues were on watch for whether, rather than when, the U.S. economy would show clear signs of improvement.

(Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., greets guests during a rally on the east lawn of the Capitol to urge Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to hold a vote on the 'Seniors and Veterans Emergency Benefits Act,' March 9, 2016. The legislation would provide a one time payment to seniors, veterans and other SSI recipients who will not get a cost-of-living adjustment this year.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senators Bob Corker (L) and Elizabeth Warren (R) speak before a Senate Banking Committee on the semiannual monetary report to Congress hearing in Washington, USA on February 11, 2016.

(Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), talks with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) in the House chamber prior to President Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 12, 2013.

(REUTERS/Charles Dharapak/Pool)

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In 2016, Cannon wrote that Warren would indeed bring more warmth than Clinton, pointing to an anecdote she shared on Facebook about how she would bake her mother a “heart shaped cake” as a child. He contrasted that with Clinton’s sarcastic “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies” comment from 1992, which was a response to ongoing questions about why she chose to continue her law practice when her husband was governor of Arkansas.

For some Bernie Sanders supporters, meanwhile, praising Warren was a way to deflect accusations of sexism. In a 2016 Huffington Post opinion piece titled, “I Despise Hillary Clinton And It Has Nothing to Do With Her Gender,” Isaac Saul wrote that he “and many Sanders supporters would vote for Elizabeth Warren if she were in the race over Hillary or Bernie.” (Saul apologized to Clinton for being a “smug young journalist” and “Bernie Bro” in a follow up article months later, writing that his views of her changed after he endeavored to learn more about her history).

So what’s going on here? Has Warren become incredibly unlikable over the past two years? Or is this change more an indication of her growing power. High-achieving women, sociologist Marianne Cooper wrote in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article, are judged differently than men because “their very success — and specifically the behaviors that created that success — violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave.” When women act competitively or assertively rather than warm and nurturing, Cooper writes, they “elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine.” As a society, she says, “we are deeply uncomfortable with powerful women. In fact, we don’t often really like them.”

In other words, Warren’s expressed desire to potentially become America’s most powerful politician has changed the calculus. After all, Hillary Clinton was a popular secretary of state; Warren is a popular senator.

Research bears this out. In a study from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Program, when participants saw women as power-seeking, they “experienced feelings of moral outrage (i.e. contempt, anger, and/or disgust)” toward them and saw them as “less supportive or caring.” When participants saw male politicians as power-seeking, though, that impression instead led them to view the men “as having greater agency (e.g. being more assertive, stronger, and tougher) and greater competence.” Women, in short, were penalized for seeking power, even as men were rewarded for it.

The kind of outrage observed in the study might explain why Clinton’s favorables have always plummeted whenever she announced that she was seeking higher office. Her favorable ratings reached a peak of 67 percent in 1999, only to slump to the mid-40s when she ran for the Senate in 2000. Her favorable rating rose while she was on the job, though, reaching 58 percent in 2007, only to crater back to the 40s again as soon as she announced her 2008 run for president.

In a 2012 Talking Points Memo article, Benjy Sarlin (now a reporter for NBC News) dubbed then-Secretary of State Clinton “badass cool.” Not only did the nation’s top diplomat have a 66 percent favorable rating, she had recently become the subject of a popular meme.

Some, though, had already noticed the pattern and doubted the good times would last.

“The current Internet-fueled lovefest between Hillary and America is probably as doomed as Romeo and Juliet,” The Cut columnist Ann Friedman wrote that December. Sure enough, as talk of a second presidential run heated up, Clinton’s approval began falling again, sinking to 41 percent when she officially joined the race in 2015.

“The more a woman is in service to someone else,” the more likable she is, Clinton explained to NBC News in 2017, describing her work at the State Department as having been “in service to my country” and “in service to our president.” “I was proud to do it,” she said. “But when a woman walks into the arena and says, ‘I’m going in this for myself,’ it really does have a dramatic effect on how people perceive.”

Though Warren was the darling of those who said, “I’d vote for a woman — just not that woman,” she is no stranger to the likability rollercoaster.

When Warren was first running for U.S. Senate in 2012, her favorables lagged behind those of Republican Sen. Scott Brown. Her bid to unseat him was not guaranteed, even in liberal Massachusetts. “Warren and her hectoring, know-it-all style leaves” women disappointed, Democratic analyst Dan Payne wrote at the time, complaining that “all she does in her ads is complain about national problems,” and describing her as “preachy” and “lawyer-like.”

Payne suggested she “lose the granny glasses,” “soften the hair” and get coaching to “deepen her voice, which grates on some.” She should also practice “ a little modesty,” he said, and “stop the finger-wagging” because “it adds to her strict schoolmarm appearance and bossy manner.”

Payne’s screed could easily be mistaken for a satire of misogynistic garbage — but he was serious. What he was really criticizing was Warren’s tone — a metric for measuring likability that women are uniquely subjected to.

In a 2014 Fortune article, CEO Kieran Snyder examined the question of tone in an experiment in which she asked people to submit their employer’s reviews of their job performance. Snyder examined 248 reviews — 105 from men and 75 from women — and found that 58.9 percent of male employees’ reviews included critical feedback, while 87.9 percent of female employees’ reviews did. The results were even more stark when Snyder looked at the kind of criticism men and women received: 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women included criticisms of their tone. Only 2 out of 83 critical reviews received by men included the same criticism, with comments focused mostly on things like the need to hone their strategies or develop their skills.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders’ shouting, finger-wagging style often earned him praise for his “authenticity” and “passion.” Clinton was at times criticized as “passionless” for her “robotic” style, but showing emotion lead to worries that she was “shrill.” When Warren wags her fingers, she doesn’t get to be the passionate, cool old guy like Sanders; men like Payne and GOP strategist Rick Wilson call her a schoolmarm for it.

Likability has long since outlived its speculative usefulness. And there is no clearer an example than Elizabeth Warren’s contradictory treatment in the press. Women do not become unlikable overnight. At this rate, the only likable female president would be one who didn’t want the job.

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