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The fake outrage over the U-word

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks Saturday at a

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks Saturday at a campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa. Credit: AP / Justin Wan

With rumblings of the 2020 presidential race drawing nearer, we already have the first sexism controversy of the future campaign. A Politico magazine report examining the question of whether the candidacy of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) may be hampered by the perception that she is cold, aloof and “unlikable” has elicited cries of outrage on Twitter and in other media. “Unlikable,” critics argue, is a covertly sexist term applied almost exclusively to women in politics and used as a pejorative against ambitious women who don’t conform to feminine stereotypes.

But is the charge of media sexism a valid complaint or an attempt to shield female candidates from robust criticism — and will playing the gender card hurt more than it helps?

First of all, the Politico article was certainly not an attack on Warren. The story, written by a female reporter, examined the “likability” issue mostly from the standpoint of the senator’s concerned supporters. It also quoted people who thought that it was a sexist critique and that Warren risked being handicapped by gender bias in the same way that many believe Hillary Clinton was.

Secondly, the notion that the U-word is reserved for female politicians can be easily refuted by doing an internet search for “Mitt Romney” and “unlikable.” It will yield such headlines as “Mitt Romney, the Unlikable Presidential Candidate.” It also works with “Al Gore” and “John Kerry.” If there’s a pattern, it’s that the label tends to stick to politicians who are seen as too intellectual and/or too patrician.

Some say that while the issue may arise for both sexes, it disproportionately hurts women because likability is seen as more important for them. But that’s an almost untestable claim. Notably, every male presidential contender with a likability problem ended up losing — unless you count our current president, to whom normal rules do not apply.

In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart asserts that Warren’s relative unpopularity — she has a 30 percent favorable rating to 37 percent unfavorable in a recent Quinnipiac poll — are explained primarily by sexism. His evidence is that other top female politicians, such as Hillary Clinton and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), also have been plagued by high voter disapproval. But the same is true of some prominent men, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Beinart cites a 2010 study by Yale scholars Victoria Brescoll and Tyler Okimoto as evidence of the misogyny faced by ambitious women in American politics. Participants read a short article about one of two fictional state senators, one male and the other female; for half of them, the article had added text describing the senator as ambitious and power-seeking. According to Beinart, the ambitious male senator was viewed more favorably while his female counterpart elicited “moral outrage.”

But this conclusion is based on a misleading summary of the study. Without explicit mentions of ambition, the female senator is viewed somewhat more positively than the male senator; with such mentions, she is viewed somewhat less positively. But the score for “moral outrage” — contempt, anger, or disgust — was very low for both (around 1.5 on a 7-point scale, or between “none” and “very little”). Even if a survey of 310 Americans in 2010 is relevant today, it tells us very little. Meanwhile, research on real-life politicians by scholars such as Jennifer Lawless of American University and Deborah Jordan Brooks of Dartmouth College shows that voters on the whole are not biased against women.

What can put female candidates at a disadvantage is a situation in which their flaws and problems can’t be discussed honestly for fear of seeming sexist. So knock it off, outrage brigades.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.