The Likability Project: We Weren’t Obsessed with Likability Until We Met Hillary Clinton

We’re Still a Country That Wants Women to “Stay in Their Place”

Joanne Bamberger

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Image via Joanne Bamberger/All rights reserved

Our collective preoccupation with whether a woman presidential candidate must be likable to be electable can be traced directly to our inability to accept one woman in particular — Hillary Clinton.

Of course, we’ve always wanted to like the political candidates we vote for.

Voters liked John F. Kennedy more than Richard Nixon in 1960. Nixon hoped Checkers and his wife’s sensible cloth coat would help with that, but visibly sweating under the hot TV debate lights wiped out any gain Nixon might have made trying to portray himself as an everyman. But did voters really like Nixon more than Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968? That year was complicated, with the assassination of Robert Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run, and the country’s internal conflict over the Vietnam war. Whether voters actually liked “Tricky Dick” didn’t seem to factor into the voting equation.

Jimmy Carter seemed like a nice family man. And there is still much love among political conservatives for Ronald Reagan.

Our judgmental fascination over whether we needed to find a political figure “likable” didn’t surface until Bill Clinton ran for the White House in 1992, and the fixation didn’t have anything to do with him. Bill had charisma by the boatload regardless of what you thought of him personally or politically. But when his wife Hillary appeared front and center on the campaign, being unapologetically the career woman and life partner, voters felt a sudden, unfamiliar shift in the political space-time continuum.

Hillary Clinton was a kind of political spouse no one had seen before. She dared to step out of the traditional helpmate role. She wasn’t a stay at home mom as most other First Ladies had been until that point. Infamously, she wasn’t staying home to bake cookies and have teas. She wasn’t letting her husband take the lead on making the mortgage payments.

Even though she wasn’t the one running for office, reporters and voters focused on the discomfort they were feeling about having this modern woman anywhere near the Oval…

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Joanne Bamberger

Author, opinion journalist, attorney, photographer. Entreprenurial Journalism Fellow, Newmark J School/CUNY