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Are female presidential candidates held to a higher standard than males?

With the exit of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a 2020 Democratic presidential field that began as the most diverse in history became, essentially, a contest between two white men. Judy Woodruff talks to Georgetown University’s Lily Adams, former communications director for Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign, and Amanda Hunter of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which promotes women in politics.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With Elizabeth Warren's departure, the 2020 Democratic field that began as the most diverse in American history essentially became a contest between two white men.

    As the Massachusetts senator announced her exit from the race yesterday, she was asked about the role of gender in the campaign.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    Gender in this race, you know that is the trap question for everyone.

    If you say, yes, there was sexism in this race, everyone says, whiner.

    And if you say, no, there was no sexism, about a zillion women think, what planet do you live on?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, President Trump was asked if he thought sexism played a role in Warren's departure.

  • President Donald Trump:

    No, I think lack of talent was her problem. She had a tremendous lack of talent. She was a good debater. She destroyed Mike Bloomberg very quickly, like it was nothing.

    That was easy for her. But people don't like her. She is a very mean person, and people don't like her. People don't want that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To look at the challenges and successes of women running in 2020, I'm joined by Lily Adams. She served as communications director for Kamala Harris' presidential campaign, and she worked for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 race. She is now a fellow at the Georgetown University Institute of Politics.

    And Amanda Hunter is the research and communications director for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. It's a nonpartisan organization that works to promote women in politics.

    And we welcome both of you to the "NewsHour."

    So, Lily Adams, I'm going to start with you.

    We started with six women seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Now we're down to Tulsi Gabbard, who, at this point, is far back.

    What happened?

  • Lily Adams:

    Well, look, I mean, I think what you saw, some of the sorrow and why women felt like this was a gut punch, wasn't just because there were a number of fans of Senator Warren's, but also because we had seen woman after woman after woman leave this race.

    And so I think it does lead to hard questions for the country, but also for the Democratic Party, of how hard it is still to be a woman running for the highest office in the land, and what sort of structural changes we need to make to support women who are running for this highest position, especially since the majority of the Democratic Party is women.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amanda Hunter, we did hear from President Trump. But what happened to these other women happened by Democratic voters. I mean, these women were not welcomed by Democratic voters.

    How much harder is it in 2020 for a woman to run for president?

  • Amanda Hunter:

    Well, we know from our research that when women seek executive office, they're held to a different and higher standard.

    And we certainly saw that with all of the women who ran in the 2020 field, particularly Senator Warren, who is the latest example.

    But, at the same time, even though a woman wasn't successful at the ballot box this time, we probably won't see a woman in the White House, that doesn't mean that we didn't see any progress. For the first time having multiple women in the race allowed each woman to run as an individual and challenge stereotypes.

    And that progress is here to stay.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    No question the fact that you did have this many women staying in, Lily Adams, as long as you did, people can imagine — it's easier to imagine a woman in the White House.

    But, still, Democratic voters rejected the women candidates.

  • Lily Adams:

    Well, look, I think part of it is that there has been this cloud of a question around this entire race on so-called electability and what does that mean?

    And there has been for a year sort of an assumption, I think, by the press and pundits that the easiest person to elect is a white male, because other presidents have looked like white males or because some of the voters the party needs to attract or white males.

    I don't think there's any good data to back that up, but it has certainly seeped into the consciousness of Democratic voters who are hell-bent on beating Donald Trump this November.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Amanda Hunter, what are some examples of what women still have to deal with?

    We just heard Elizabeth Warren say, look, if I say there was a problem with sexism, people accuse me of whining. But the reverse, women know that's just not true. There is sexism out there.

  • Amanda Hunter:


    And we know from our research that women are held to a higher standard on the issues of qualification and likability. Voters assume men are qualified. All men have to do is put out their resume. And women have to prove it over and over. And that's part of the reason we saw this creeping electability refrain coming up over and over.

    And we also know that likability is a nonnegotiable for women. Voters won't vote for a woman if they don't like her. And they will vote for a man that they don't like. And likability is something that's so subjective. The advice is like walking a tightrope, use humor, not too much humor, take credit, but also share credit, dress nice, but not too nice.

    So much of it is based on hunches and opinions. And that's such a burden that women have to bear and men simply don't.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What did you see of that, Lily Adams, when you were on the trail with Kamala Harris?

  • Lily Adams:

    Yes, with Kamala Harris.

    I mean, there's a million examples, but for just one for an example was, there was a headline of a story about Kamala Harris saying, Kamala Harris is connecting with voters. Is she connecting too much?

    I mean, this is an impossible standard for anyone to meet. And I think some of it too, as was being mentioned, is that, with men, we always are seeing the possibility with women. We're asking them to, like, just delineate time and time again how they have met all the qualifications and are the exact perfect, again, qualified, but not too qualified, intimidating.

    I think that sometimes there's an impossible standard that we're putting onto them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What should we think about the future, Amanda Hunter? I mean, we heard Senator Warren say yesterday, the hardest thing for her — or one of the hardest things — is imagining knowing little girls out there are going to have to wait four more years.

    How discouraged should women be?

  • Amanda Hunter:

    Well, for hundreds of years in this country, the stereotype of what a presidential candidate looked like was an older white man.

    And having a generation grow up seeing the most diverse presidential primary slate in history, seeing six women run as individuals, rather than running as the token woman, as we have seen before, is something that will make an impact and challenges stereotypes in and of itself.

    And, also, we saw a record number of women elected to office in 2017 and 2018. We know from our research that women are more politically engaged than ever, and millennial women, particularly women of color, are leading the charge and report that they have no plans to slow down.

    So this could galvanize more women to become politically involved and actually see more women elected to office in the coming years.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you see that, Lily Adams? I mean, my question is, is this going to send a signal to other women interested in reaching higher that you're not going to be welcome?

  • Lily Adams:

    No, I think probably just the opposite.

    I mean, I think one thing that the 2018 elections did was, it elected a whole new slate of Democratic women to the House, to local office. And I think that that really builds the bench of the next people who will run for president.

    I do, though, think this is not just a women problem. This is also for the men in the Democratic Party to say, you know what you need to do next cycle? You need to support more women earlier on, more consistently to run for that higher office, and maybe not run for that office yourself.

    I think that's just a challenge that we as a party need to make, which is to say that we are going to put this on the front burner, electing the first woman president. It should be us, and not Republicans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that brings me back to the point I was making earlier, Amanda Hunter, that it was, after all, Democratic voters, the Democratic Party that has sent most of these women packing.

  • Amanda Hunter:


    Well, a lot of voters still have an imagination barrier when it comes to a woman president, because we don't know what a woman president looks like yet.

    But just because there's a barrier doesn't mean that it can't be broken. We have seen it happen before. And, as Lily said, we have a whole bench of talented, qualified women that could potentially run in the future.

    And, also, in the wake of the 2017 women's march and the MeToo movement and this tidal wave of truth-telling we have seen in our culture, the conversation has shifted. We have been seeing women call out sexism in real time. We have been seeing more women conversations about gender on the campaign trail.

    And those are all signs of progress that also will continue to move us forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We're going to choose to end on that uplifting note.


  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you so much, Amanda Hunter and Lily Adams. Thank you both very much.

  • Lily Adams:

    Good to be here.

  • Amanda Hunter:

    Thank you.

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