Why have there been no female presidents? What we do know is that 12% of American voters would not vote for a female presidential candidate, regardless of the candidate, and that only 75% of American voters believe that men and women are equally capable of leading. We can’t truly answer that question, but we can examine the perception of powerful women in America.
Quite often, women in power are portrayed by the media as disagreeable, harsh, or unfriendly. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the poster child for this stereotype. During the 2008 election, presidential candidate Clinton was constantly criticized for her voice—of all things. They said that she had a nagging wife voice that could not be respected. In Jodi Kantor’s recently released book, The Obamas, Michelle Obama’s relationships with White House staffers are portrayed as tense and unpleasant. Regardless of her position as an immensely popular first lady, she is characterized as controlling, even in her relationship with the President. The new Margaret Thatcher biopic is titled “The Iron Lady.”
On the other hand, former presidential hopeful Michelle Bachmann was criticized for her religious beliefs about “submitting” to her husband. Critics held that presidents should be submissive to no one.
Is it worse to seem unpleasant or weak? And why isn’t there a middle ground for women in power?
For female politicians, youthful attractiveness is unfairly unvalued. For male politicians, signs of aging are assets that signify wisdom, but for older female politicians such as Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi, signs of aging are used by pundits for petty mockery. Glenn Beck openly compared Pelosi to Skeletor.
Perhaps most troubling is the sexualization of innocent actions of female politicians. In 2009, a Newsweek cover used a photo of Sarah Palin from a profile in Runners World. With Palin attractively posing in running shorts, the photo was completely appropriate for Runners World, but out of context and in poor taste for a Newsweek cover. More recently, the media obsessed over suggestive photos of Michelle Bachmann eating a corn dog at the Iowa State Fair.
Why have there been no female presidents? Maybe because the media uses gender stereotypes to discuss them. It’s not an issue of political affiliation or ability. It’s a media issue. Why would voters support candidates who are portrayed as unpleasant, incapable of leading, or just a pretty face?