Sexism Probably Wasn’t What Doomed Warren’s Campaign

The belief that female candidates for president face impenetrable barriers does more to perpetuate sexism than dismantle it.

Elizabeth Warren speaking with a young girl
Eric Thayer / The New York Tim​es / Redux

With Elizabeth Warren’s decision to drop out of the presidential race last week, a Democratic field that began with half a dozen female contenders is effectively down to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders—a fact that has sparked a surge of feminist anger and dismay. On Twitter, the author and activist Amber Tamblyn urged Warren’s female supporters to give themselves “the space to grieve, and be angry, and be numb.” But what they shouldn’t do is let the Massachusetts senator’s withdrawal convince them that, for female candidates, the presidency still lies beyond a glass ceiling.

At some point, the United States is going to elect a woman to the White House, and Warren’s loss doesn’t change that. Most of the people, male and female, who run for president are unsuccessful. That four female senators made serious bids for the 2020 Democratic nomination suggests that the pipeline of potential future nominees has grown and will continue to do so. And while subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny remains a factor in politics—as does the opposing force of feminist passion, which surely energized Warren’s campaign—many other factors are also in play. Even highly qualified candidates fall short because they chose the wrong strategy or misread the public mood, or because their rivals are just nimbler or luckier. The belief that Warren and other women who set their sights on the White House face virtually insurmountable barriers because of their gender does more to perpetuate sexism in politics than to dismantle it.

For many, the role of gender bias as the primary factor in the collapse of the Warren candidacy—just like in Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in 2016—is self-evident. “Don’t tell me this isn’t about sexism. I’ve been around too long for that,” the feminist pundit Jessica Valenti wrote. And yet others note that fewer than a quarter of female Democratic voters in Massachusetts voted for Warren in that state’s primary. Had the voters who twice elected the former Harvard Law School professor to the Senate suddenly succumbed to sexism? Even white female college graduates, her strongest demographic, gave her only a narrow plurality of 33 percent to Biden’s 31 percent. Are two-thirds of them in thrall to internalized misogyny—or might other factors have contributed to Warren’s third-place finish in her own state?

Claims of a pervasively bigoted, misogynistic climate—whether toward Warren or Clinton—tend to rest on sweeping but largely unquantifiable and unfalsifiable assertions that female candidates are subjected to resentment and harsh scrutiny in a way that men are not. Attempts to back up these claims with data often reference a 2010 Harvard study that supposedly concluded, as the feminist philosopher Kate Manne summarized in a recent Washington Post essay, that “men who seek power were viewed as stronger and tougher, while power-seeking women provoked feelings of disgust and contempt.”

But what did the Harvard study actually find? The researchers asked 230 American adults (two-thirds of them women) to read a short biography of a fictional state senator identified as “John Burr” or “Ann Burr” and rate him or her on various traits, including toughness and competence. Respondents also rated how much they felt various positive or negative emotions toward Burr. For half of the participants, the biography had additional heavy-handed lines discussing Burr’s reputation for being “ambitious” and having “a strong will to power,” as well as a purported quote from the senator stating that “being hungry” is the key to political success.

The study did find that, with the “power-seeking” cues, the female politician’s ratings became somewhat more negative while those of the male politician improved slightly. On the other hand, neither the media reports nor the authors’ own summary mentioned that without those cues, “Ann” got markedly better ratings than “John” on everything, including strength and toughness. When neither was described as ostentatiously grasping for power, subjects regarded the female Burr more favorably.

And what about the “disgust and contempt” that Manne described? This refers to the study’s measure of what the authors call “moral outrage” toward Senator Burr, based on the participants’ self-reported feelings of disgust, contempt, or anger toward the fictional politician. In the absence of the power-seeking cues, the average moral-outrage score, on a scale of 1 to 7, was 1.23 for the woman and 1.5 for the man; with the cues, it was 1.62 for the woman and 1.45 for the man (a gap that barely reaches statistical significance when individual variation is factored in). In other words, the amount of “moral outrage” subjects felt in every scenario was somewhere between “none” and “very little.”

Manne, who has argued that a pervasive patriarchy in America relentlessly punishes women who challenge male dominance, cites a pair of other studies, from 2004 and 2007, as potential evidence of sexist bias in politics. The gist of this research is that women who are described as highly successful in a stereotypically male job, such as financier or aircraft-company executive, tend to be rated as somewhat less likable than comparable men: In one experiment, for instance, average likability scores on a 1-to-9 scale were 6.3 for a woman and 7.3 for a man. (The advantage was reversed not only in female-typed jobs but in ones cued as gender-neutral.)

But whether this research—conducted with groups of a few dozen undergraduate psychology students—sheds light on actual voters’ views of female candidates is an open question. In a 2009 study that approximated a real-world setting much more closely, using a sample of more than 1,100 American adults, the Dartmouth College political scientist Deborah Jordan Brooks found that people who read made-up news stories about a fictional male or female Senate candidate did not penalize women more for gaffes, tears, or displays of anger—and that a female candidate with no prior political experience tended to be viewed more positively than a man with a similar background.

Meanwhile, in real-life congressional elections—since as far back as the 1980s—women who run win as often as men do. Do these women, as some have suggested, need to be better than men to do as well? Testing this proposition is virtually impossible. But some evidence suggests that being female in 21st-century America is not a disadvantage in political races. Jennifer L. Lawless, a professor of government at American University, and Danny Hayes, a professor of political science at George Washington University, carried out a detailed analysis of voter surveys and media coverage from the 2010 midterms and found that “candidate sex does not affect journalists’ coverage of, or voters’ attitudes toward, the women and men running for office.”

Those data, I should note, came from congressional elections; some analysts believe that Americans who have no problem with female legislators may be more hesitant to elect women to executive positions, though the evidence remains inconclusive. “The optimistic story that we’ve been telling for 15 years is not about presidential politics,” Lawless told me in an interview two days after Warren’s withdrawal. “It might be! But we don’t have systematic evidence, because we still have too few women running for president.”

Does Lawless think sexism played a role in either Clinton’s defeat or Warren’s failure? Her conclusion is that we simply don’t know. In 2016, she pointed out, the female candidate was Hillary Clinton, who had unique baggage after decades in the public eye. “It was hard to tell if it was sexism or Clintonism,” Lawless told me. And this year? “Although some very qualified female contenders did not make it to the end of the race,” Lawless said, “neither did some very qualified men.”

None of which is to say that sexism is extinct. In a June 2019 Ipsos poll, about 12 percent of Democrats and independents disagreed strongly or somewhat with the statement “I am comfortable with a female president.” But far more—40 percent—felt that it was important for the Democratic Party to nominate a woman.

Lawless does believe that gender currently puts up one distinct hurdle for women: the widespread belief that America is not willing to elect a female president. Because of this assumption, some voters eager to get Trump out of office might see a male candidate as a safer choice. Other commentators have raised the same issue in recent months. “While most Americans claim they are ready for a woman president, far fewer see other people as quite so open to the possibility,” the New York Times columnist Michelle Cottle wrote in January, pointing to several polls in which this pattern emerged. Warren supporters have deplored the media’s flogging of the “electability” issue as a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” But no one seems to be asking whether the relentless focus on the misogyny allegedly thwarting female candidates—and, specifically, Clinton in 2016—played into this self-fulfilling prophecy as well.

A June 2019 poll found that 41 percent of Democrats (and 25 percent of all women) thought that “gender and sexism” played a “major role” in Clinton’s loss to Trump. This is certainly the view embraced by much feminist and progressive punditry: On November 9, 2016, well-known publications such as Slate, BuzzFeed, and Splinter all ran headlines asserting, based on Clinton’s loss, that “America hates women.”

Viewed differently, though, Clinton’s campaign was groundbreaking. She won her party’s nomination in a tough contest and got 3 million more votes than Trump in the general election. Her ultimate loss, one could argue, had far less to do with misogyny than with the peculiarities of the Electoral College. That Clinton lost to a man widely regarded as an unqualified buffoon was understandably galling to her supporters. But anyone tempted to see Trump’s ability to beat a far more competent and more fit female opponent as prima facie evidence of sexism should remember that first, he won the nomination by beating 16 other candidates—15 of whom were men, and nearly all of whom had more traditional political credentials than he did. It is also worth noting that when two NYU professors produced a half-hour play that presented the Clinton-Trump debates with the candidates’ genders flipped, many spectators and project members were discomfited by how much they liked the female Trump and disliked the male Clinton.

Of course turning a blind eye to sexism where it exists and trying to wish it away by positive thinking is a bad idea. Yet not every criticism of a female politician’s campaign is sexist—even if it’s mean-spirited and unfair. A candidate can be called condescending, inauthentic, or deceptive (fairly or not) for reasons other than misogyny. A politician’s appearance, personality, or voice can be widely disliked for reasons other than misogyny; in 2015 and 2016, Ted Cruz was often attacked in highly personal terms. When every unflattering remark about Clinton or Warren is attributed to sexism, it antagonizes some people and demoralizes others.

It also promotes more skepticism about women candidates’ chances than is warranted either from Clinton’s near-victory in 2016 or Warren’s showing this year. Perhaps, when it comes to sexism in politics, we should paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt’s dictum about economic depression: The worst thing we have to fear is fear itself.