Female Candidates and the Emotion Doublebind

Women politicians are in an awkward place when it comes to how they display emotion, and that place becomes especially acute in Presidential campaigns, where the stakes are high and everyone is being watched highly attentively for the slightest sign of a crumble, a fault, a crack in the facade. For women in politics, women attempting to run and be taken seriously, emotion needs to be carefully calculated and balanced, but not in a way so obvious that it can be identified, because this of course would mean that they would be accused of being manipulative, of trying to work sentiment in a particular direction for political gain. Male politicians are not subject to the same kind of scrutiny, because concerns about them being ‘too emotional’ for office aren’t there; while they’re expected to be fairly stoic and plain, emotionally speaking, you don’t see concerntrolling opinion editorial columns about whether they can be trusted with nuclear launch codes.

A woman who expresses emotion on the campaign trail is ‘hysterical’ and ‘overemotional.’ Much was made of scenes in which Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin cried during the last Presidential campaign, in moments of intense stress and, yes, sadness. Because elections are about winning and when you are not the one who wins, it is sad. And sometimes that expresses in the form of tears, tears you cannot control, tears which may anger and frustrate you, but there it is. Both crying episodes were taken as evidence that women are too weak for politics; they can’t even campaign without boo-hooing when they lose!

And, of course, a woman who doesn’t express emotion is too stoic. She’s cold. She’s stiff. She’s unapproachable, and can’t be a good leader because women need to be nurturing and loving and friendly and comfortable, they must set people at ease and offer hospitality, because this is their social and cultural role. No one will want to meet with the frost queen, so having a brusque, no nonsense kind of leader will of course imperil treaty agreements and foreign relations. Women politicians must not be unemotional, because this is a sign that they are robots who will not be able to lead the country, or their parties.

Show emotion and you are too fragile, untrustworthy, and incapable for the serious adult work of politics. You are manipulative, and all the other things people like to say about women when they express feelings; you can’t approach situations objectively, you can’t be trusted to make the right decisions in times of stress, you clearly aren’t capable of setting aside your feelings on complex emotional issues. Don’t show your emotions and you’re inhuman, suspect because you don’t behave in a feminine way, which means you might be too cold and unfeeling for politics, unable to bring compassion to your job.

These issues become especially fraught when a racial element is introduced. Black and Latina women are censured for being ’emotional’ more than white women, and the same applies to these candidates, who are expected to behave in specific ways to show that they are ‘capable’ of handling the world of politics. A woman who snaps in a debate, for example, who crisply corrects a false statement, who shows a hint of irritation, is clearly irrational and far too tempestuous to be able to deal with the real world. Asian candidates, meanwhile, are suspiciously stoic if they don’t express emotions, clearly unfeeling and incapable of connecting with their constituents, based on decades of stereotypes about emotions and culture. When these issues collide in politics, the results can be ugly, because of course people are eager to ascribe their feelings about candidates to things other than sexism and racism.

These are things to watch for in the coming months, over the course of the election, to look at how people discuss emotions in connection with female candidates, and to examine your own responses to emotional displays, or lack thereof. We are all steeped in a culture that maintains very specific beliefs about women, and we often unwittingly reinforce these beliefs in our response to situations. Or in our failure to respond when someone is talking about those beliefs as though they are generally socially accepted and understood. It is easy to slip into a place of comfort with these beliefs.

Many people still think women don’t belong in politics at all, the result of attitudes about appropriate gender roles and careers. Emotionality plays a big role in how people think about women in politics; people believe that men are less emotional, that they are more capable of controlling their emotions, that they can set their emotions aside in times of stress to focus on meeting specific challenges. By contrast, people believe that women are more emotional and less in control, and repeat falsities about hormone cycles and how no one wants to trust a politician who becomes an emotional mess every 28 days.

These attitudes may not always express blatantly and obviously, in the form of statements that women are too emotional for politics, but they come up nonetheless. They come up when people question whether a mother with young children is ready for the job, when people ask how female politicians will handle stress, when people watch candidates for any signs of what they consider to be emotional weakness, and say that impartiality is key for people in positions of power and responsibility. Implied in these is the idea that politics are altogether too much for women, who are clearly too fragile to handle the simultaneous responsibilities of being female and having careers.