Critics of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s pursuit of the House Speaker position don’t have a problem with women in leadership positions — they have a problem with this woman in a leadership position.
The predominantly white, male “progressive” push to replace Pelosi and her eight-hour filibuster for immigration reform, as well as her successful, Herculean quest to pass health care reform that granted millions of disproportionately low-income, minorities insurance coverage lies in her lack of progressive ideas. Instead, the lineup of potential alternative Speakers includes a slew of centrist, unremarkable white men. They have never filibustered for immigrant children for eight hours in heels, nor overcome the jarring odds and sexist attacks that Pelosi faces to deliver a slew of successes for the American middle and working-class.
Pelosi, fresh from ushering in a blue wave of unprecedented numbers of women, will be the next Speaker of the House. And the conflict over her leadership starkly reflects the elusiveness of female likability — certainly in politics, but also in society at large.
The reality that many people in this country still do not “trust” women leaders, or find women leaders “likable” and, especially among young people, deride young vocal feminists as “social justice warriors,” is obfuscated because these same people will claim to have no problems with women as a unit. But they will routinely criticize individual women and refuse to acknowledge a pattern in what they dislike about each one.
Despite lawsuits against President Donald Trump, dozens of sexual misconduct allegations and refusal to publicly share his tax returns ahead of the 2016 election, it was Hillary Clinton whom most Americans said they could not trust. Her email server and the Benghazi scandal have all been replicated in some even more dangerous, outrageous fashion by the Trump administration, but the president’s core base has not even flinched.
The jarring double standards in likability, in perceptions of trustworthiness, intelligence and belonging are magnified in today’s political landscape. We live in an age of uniquely potent gaslighting that suggests women have already maxed out in equality, so that the passive-aggressive sexist subtext we continue to face is easily denied by its perpetrators. And in turn, our reactions to buzz words and micro-aggressions, each of which tell us we do not belong, are weaponized against us: If we respond, we are hysterical and overly sensitive.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress, cannot share a candid home video including a slip of the tongue about the chambers of government without being called “simple” and unintelligent by critics, many of whom adore Trump’s ignorance as representing his “anti-establishment” brand. She can’t speak about her experience being mistaken for an intern or Congress member’s wife without being aggressively fact-checked. She can’t put together a nice outfit without being decried for dishonesty about her working-class background and upbringing.
Of course, the policing of Ocasio’s wardrobe speaks to classist notions that poor people do not deserve “nice things.” Additionally, juxtaposed with conservatives’ adoration of Trump’s financial success and opulent displays of wealth, disdain for Ocasio having the audacity to walk around Capitol Hill wearing a nice blazer underscores how many traits seen as “likable” and admirable in men can be damning in women.
Watching the aggressive nit-picking and petty criticisms of Ocasio’s every move has been a visceral experience for me. Ever since my political awakening in the latter years of high school, when I first began to write about and report on feminism and current events in a professional capacity, I couldn’t share my work or any articles about the issues without being condescendingly asked if I had even read the article (sometimes, even if I had written it). I couldn’t talk about my experiences with sexual harassment without facing compassionless interrogation from my peers — many of whom often perpetuated the very harassment and sexism they aggressively denied existed — about whether I could name and detail specific incidents.
I felt consistently forced to feel ashamed that my activist work and writing were performative stunts for “attention,” that my vocal feminism after years of, at times, traumatic harassment was a selfish front for me to “justify being a slut.”
At some point, I gave up on my pursuit of being liked — holding my tongue when boys around me would use homophobic or racist slurs, being a silent observer of the misogyny and subtle manifestations of intolerance in the behaviors of men around me.
Men who say they take issue with Pelosi but not women politicians in general, men who claim to respect women, but just not that woman, say they aren’t asking for much from women to like us. But what they ask of us is nothing short of everything — that we remove ourselves (or at least our opinions) from public spaces, that we sit back and be quiet observers and consumers of their lives, rather than speak up and fight for our own.
The critiques of every aspect of how Ocasio conducts herself, and visceral male hatred of women like Pelosi and Clinton, are broad messages to American women at large: that we are too emotional, unintelligent and ultimately, too female, to occupy spaces of power, to speak our minds and be heard and certainly, to speak our minds and be liked.
Kylie Cheung is a junior majoring in political science. She is also the blogs editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “You Do Uterus,” ran every other Wednesday.