HomeLearning CenterThe Hidden Hurdles for a Female Presidency

The Hidden Hurdles for a Female Presidency

Originally published by Gauri Sood for Harvard Political Review

A total of 59 presidential elections have occurred in American history. Yet only one woman has even clinched the nomination of a major party, let alone won the popular vote in an election. 

Out of the thousands of potential female candidates across the years, only 24 women have run for president. Although Kamala Harris paved the way after her election as the first female Vice President in 2020, getting a woman into the nation’s top office is a goal yet to be accomplished for American female leadership. 

Not only has a woman not yet assumed the nation’s highest office, we have barely had the chance to get there. This disparity is not an issue of competence, as some members of the far-right routinely assert. In terms of capability and qualifications, the majority of the general public believes that women are qualified for the American presidency, and 73% of Americans anticipate a female presidency at some point during their lives. Rather, the gap is attitudinal and influenced by gendered biases. By examining the well-loved characteristics of past male presidents, exploring public biases, and recalling the success of women in leadership, we can gain insight into how to overcome these biases and hopefully turn many little girls’ presidential dreams into reality.

Generally speaking, two invaluable skill sets for a successful presidential candidate are economic acumen and strength on issues of security. These two skills are closely tied to “agentic” characteristics. Agentic traits consist of the ability to dominate, be assertive, and be confident. People with such qualities tend to be placed in leadership positions; however, these traits are stereotypically associated with men, not women. 

A presentation made at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association titled “What Makes a Good President?” displayed that stubbornness and disagreeability are favored traits, but vulnerability and straightforwardness are not. Of all the men that have made it to the Oval Office, few can attribute their success to being “warm” — however, lack of warmth is precisely what was used to critique female candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary. Therefore, one may think that the trick to electing women lies in selecting female candidates with more male-associated leadership traits. What if a woman were to stand up and run for president as an experienced and unapologetically confident candidate?

Hillary Clinton did so during her 2016 presidential campaign against former President Donald Trump. Clinton centered her campaign on being a “strong leader capable of advancing the American economy” with decades-worth of experience in American politics. Contrarily, Trump played off as a “socially dominant” natural, despite his considerably non-political background. Based on what Americans believe makes a good president, Clinton should have clinched the title of president-elect. Instead, she was publicly perceived as dishonest, “crooked,” and a “militant feminist” whose image people did not enjoy.

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