“In other words,” as Blanc saw it, “if I would just sit back and look pretty, I might get more bills passed.”
That moment came back to haunt Blanc last week when she watched her pick for president, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, announce that she would be dropping out of the Democratic primary. For Blanc and many of the female politicians who’d endorsed her, the demise of Warren’s campaign — and the criticisms that were lobbed at Warren throughout her run — was a frustrating reminder of the sexism they’ve seen in their careers.
“This is a clear indication of how much harder and tougher women have to be in this political sphere. However, even if we’re all those things, we’re still not ‘competent’ enough to be seen as leaders,” Blanc said. “As an Arizona legislator here in this state, who does work among a majority [Republican] party that is mostly white and male, I experience — as [do] several of my colleagues, women colleagues — we experience sexism every single day in one form or another.”
“If they think the woman has gone too far and is too tough, then they don’t like that.”
In interviews, female politicians emphasized what they believe to be Warren’s legacy: her devotion to policy and plans, how she helped redefine what it looks like to be a woman running for president. Bolstered by a seemingly endless supply of progressive proposals — and her unofficial slogan, “I’ve got a plan for that” — Warren was briefly a front-runner last fall. But she failed to take the top slot in a single primary contest, even after a debate in which Warren disemboweled former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign with sharp questions about his use of non-disclosure agreements.
Nearly every female politician who spoke with VICE News said the strength of Warren’s campaign cast a spotlight on how tricky it is for women to be powerful leaders without being denounced as “aggressive” or “unlikeable.”
“Voters want a candidate that’s strong enough, but they also have to satisfy feminine stereotypes, and not be too tough,” said Amanda Hunter, research communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies and supports women in politics. “If they think the woman has gone too far and is too tough, then they don’t like that.”
There was one label that kept getting brought up, which tends to get slapped on women who cross that invisible line: “shrill.” That’s the word a Democratic chairman in the most populous county in New Hampshire chose to use when describing Warren; an Iowa chairman did the same. A Democratic voter in North Carolina told U.S. News & World Report that Warren “is way too strident. Her voice, just the way she talks, she turns people off.” That criticism made its way to TV: On MSNBC, commentator Donny Deutsch slammed Warren for apparently having “a certain stridentness to her.”
Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark said these types of criticisms can be “a source of real frustration.”
“I just hear that as she is a forceful woman talking in vocal tones that women use. And she has very clear opinions and plans and details and she believes in it and she’s passionate, and yet it is often well, ‘She’s too angry,’ or ‘She’s too shrill,” Clark said. “Those same characteristics, in a man, are seen as advantages.”
It’s a tightrope walk that Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the second-to-last woman standing on the primary debate stage, unintentionally highlighted during a late December debate, when all of the candidates were asked to either “gift” something to another candidate or ask for “forgiveness.” All of the men “gave.”
Both Warren and Klobuchar, however, apologized for the same thing: being too passionately invested in their literal jobs.