Women Candidates Still Tagged as Too ‘Emotional’ to Hold Office

April 16, 2019

US News & World Report: Women Candidates Still Tagged as Too ‘Emotional’ to Hold Office

By Susan Milligan

It’s an historic time in politics for women, who now hold a record number of seats in Congress, are exploring elected office in exponentially larger numbers than even a few years ago, and who represent a third of the 18 announced Democratic candidates for president.

And yet, more than 1 in 8 Americans believe women are not as emotionally suited as men to serve in elected office, according to an analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. While the percentage has dropped substantially since the 1970s, such attitudes still represent a significant barrier to women trying to break into what has long been a male-dominated club, experts say.

“Over time, our viewpoints (as Americans) tend toward favoring equality of the sexes. But it's still 13 percent,” says Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown center and one of the authors of the report. The Georgetown study is an analysis of 1974-2018 data from the General Social Survey, a poll of American attitudes that has been conducted by the University of Chicago since 1972.

And while the study did not define what sort of emotions voters think their elected officials should have, women tend to be judged and punished more for being “emotional,” analysts say. For example, an angry or forceful man might be seen as confident, while a woman expressing those same traits would be viewed as difficult. And in the modern era, with men like former House Speaker John Boehner and former President Barack Obama tearing up publicly at times of tragedy, men are often viewed positively for being vulnerable, while crying women are often seen as weak, says Amanda Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a group which advances women's equality in politics and art.

“It's not surprising, because labeling women 'emotional' has long been a tried-and-true tactic to undermine women,” Hunter says. “Men have been doing it – and some women as well – since the women's suffrage movement” of the early 20th century, when foes said women were too emotional to be trusted with ballots, she adds.

Indeed, the Georgetown analysis shows that women have not always been their sisters' best promoters. In 1974, for example,”mature” women – defined as females over 35 – were more likely than younger women or men of any age to agree with the statement that men are better suited emotionally for politics than women.

“It's really mature women who were hardest on themselves,” Smith says. She posits that because women's participation in the paid labor force was lower, those women saw their roles as rooted in the family. Last year, 16 percent of older women and 13 percent of younger women agreed with that statement.

But there remains a substantial gap when it comes to political affiliation, reflecting a frustration by both Democrats and Republicans eager to achieve closer gender parity in politics.

Both male and female Republicans have consistently been more likely than Democrats of both sexes to prefer men in elected office over women, according to the study. “Strong Republicans” – both men and women – are now nearly three times as likely as “strong Democratic” men and women to believe men are better suited than women for politics, the report found. Nearly 30 percent of Republicans share this view, the study said.

Those findings sync with other studies about gender and politics. A Pew Research Center study last year, for example, found that 49 percent of Americans believe sex discrimination is a major reason more women aren't in high political office. But broken down by party, just 30 percent of Republicans felt that way, compared to 64 percent of Democrats. Asked if there were too few women in high elected office, nearly 6 in 10 Americans said yes in the Pew poll.

But by party, the difference was stark, with 33 percent of Republicans believing women were under-represented and 79 percent of Democrats feeling that way.

In fact, Democrats dominate the gains women have made in elected office in recent years. Of the 36 freshmen women in the House following November's elections, all are Democrats except one Virginia Republican. And while the number of Democratic women in the House increased by 25 after last year's elections, Republican women saw their ranks shrink by 8, according to the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. Women now account for a record 127 seats in the 435-member chamber.

EMILY's List, a group that funds the candidacies of Democratic, pro-abortion rights candidates, has been inundated with requests from women wanting to explore a run for office at all levels, says president Stephanie Schriock. More than 46,000 women have approached EMILY's List since the 2016 elections. In the 2014-2016 election cycle, fewer than 1,000 women had reached out, according to the group. The Republican, anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List helps like-minded candidates, but has not scored the numbers EMLY's List has.

But Schriock doesn't want to keep female participation in politics limited to the Democratic Party. “The Republican Party … has started moving so far away from the passions and issues of women voters. They are not in favor of so many policies that will help women and their families,” Schriock told reporters recently. But “we don't want to be in a place in this country where we have a party of men and a party of women,” she adds.

Hunter sees an opportunity for progress for women next year. Despite some biases against women, voters last year rewarded female candidates who “ran unapologetically as themselves,” talking about how gun violence and addiction had affected their families, she says. And that sort of empathy – emotion, even – can propel more women to elected office, she says.