In a blast from the past, two women who ran for president, Pat Schroeder in 1988 and Carol Moseley Braun in 2004, liken their experience to what Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina are up against today. It’s a very different world but still frighteningly similar in the assumptions made about female candidates.
Clinton has shattered stereotypes about women and fundraising, and she’s put in place a campaign infrastructure that surpasses any of her rivals. Fiorina is testing the boundaries of what once might have been dismissed as a catfight by taking direct aim at Clinton. And both camps are exploring how much gender solidarity exists with fewer glass ceilings and a millennial generation that is much more willing to elect a woman to the White House.
Democratic Representative Schroeder said the thing that made her nuts was people saying, “I just can’t imagine having a man for First Lady. How do you relate to that? Images are so hard to crack.” For example, how do you show a woman working hard? With a man, he loosens his tie and rolls up his sleeves. Women look like unmade beds or models, she said.
Schroeder coined the phrase “Teflon president” for Ronald Reagan, and she took on the sexism in Congress, declaring, “I have a uterus and a brain and I use them both.” A long-serving member of Congress on the Armed Services Committee, she dropped out of the ’88 race in September ’87, before any votes were cast. She said the media covered her only when she spoke to women’s groups.
Ambassador Braun was the first and still only African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. After serving a single term and losing her bid for reelection, she ran for president in 2004 after a short stint as ambassador to New Zealand. She dropped out before the Iowa caucus, but lives on in the highlight reel of debates with her quip that the black vote decided the 2000 election—Clarence Thomas’s vote in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision.
Money was a problem for both women, but they were also running against ingrained images of what a president is supposed to look like.
“We don’t have the equivalent of looking large and in charge,” said Braun in a conference call organized by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which is partnering with the Center for American Women and Politics to provide historical context for the current race.
“The concept of a woman reviewing the troops is almost incomprehensible,” she said. “Will we have the equivalent of Angela Merkel? I hope so…You have to navigate cultural quicksand in a way no male candidate has to do.”
“The commander in chief thing is a hang-up,” agreed Schroeder, who was criticized for crying in the press conference when she withdrew from the presidential race. Irked by what she perceives as a double standard, Schroeder for years kept a “crying folder” filled with newspaper clips of men who were applauded for crying.
A woman getting into it with another woman was always dangerous territory. Several times in a congressional career that spanned the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Schroeder faced a female opponent for her congressional seat. “We had to be so careful. The media wanted to make it a catfight. We had to make it a tea party.”
Leslie Sanchez, a Republican consultant on the conference call, said she has gotten lots of calls about Fiorina and the way she goes after Clinton. Some say it’s a catfight but Sanchez says, “That’s her style, she’s very direct. People can make of it what they want it to be.”
Much of what Schroeder and Braun had to say is turned on its head by Clinton, who can hold her own on any of the standard ways a campaign is measured. Toughness doesn’t appear to be her problem, and after watching her perform as secretary of state, reviewing the troops doesn’t seem out of bounds as an image that Americans could get comfortable with.
But there are clues in these earlier campaigns to what some Democrats are giving voice to, and that is the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton and the historic nature of her candidacy. She is no Barack Obama, exciting young people and minorities; she doesn’t have her husband’s empathy with the voters, and she’s not a one-woman reality show who can (almost) fill a stadium the way Donald Trump can.
To win, she needs the sisterhood to turn out in force, and the historical data isn’t there. Kathleen Harrington, deputy campaign manager for Elizabeth Dole’s 2000 presidential race, said on the call that older women—women older than Dole, who was 54 at the time, were “incredibly supportive.” Among women over 60, “There was hunger for a woman president,” said Harrington. Younger women, not so much—they’ve got time for history.
The rallying cry since the 1980s is that the time for women had come, and in 2008 when Clinton ran for president, “We really assumed women would gravitate toward a female candidate. And that was true for women over 45,” says Sanchez. “Democratic women under 45 voted on personality and policy, not gender.”
Sanchez did research across the aisle for her 2009 book, You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe. Her advice for Fiorina, who’s used to being in business circles and the only woman in the room, is to remember the ladies. “I don’t see her talking to conservative women although they have evangelized around her. There are so many woman entrepreneurs she can talk to.” As for Clinton, keep riding the Girl Power movement, as this piece of history has been a long time coming.