New York: In announcing her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination this week, Nikki Haley made a subtle reference to the historic nature of her candidacy.
“I don’t put up with bullies,” Haley said in a video that launched her bid to become the first female president of the U.S. “And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”
Haley has plenty of accomplishments, including becoming the first woman elected governor of South Carolina and representing the U.S. at the United Nations. But her introduction captured the balancing act women — particularly conservative women — often navigate as they aspire to win the top job in American politics.
They must show toughness to prove they can compete against rivals who are almost always men for a job that has only been held by men. But there’s also something of an invisible line that can’t be crossed for fear of being viewed as too tough and repelling voters.
“We’ve seen higher levels of Republican women running and winning in recent elections,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “But what you also see these women often doing is working hard to meet that double bind. … It’s like, ‘I’m tough, but I’m also feminine. I’m also meeting my kind of feminine expectations.’”
Sexism in politics is hardly limited to one political party, with women in public life often under pressure to appear “likable” in ways that aren’t expected of men. During a Democratic primary debate in 2008, a male moderator pressed Hillary Clinton on the “likability issue” in relation to her rival, Barack Obama.
“I don’t think I’m that bad,” Clinton responded. Obama broke in to say, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
More recently, prominent Democratic women have also sought to project toughness in their campaigns. Sharice Davids, a former mixed martial arts fighter, sparred in a 2018 ad for a Kansas congressional seat. Amy McGrath, who challenged Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in 2020, highlighted her experience as a Marine fighter pilot.
But the dynamics are different, Dittmar said, in Republican politics, where voters tend to have more traditional views about stereotypical gender roles. That can incentivize Republican women seeking top offices to demonstrate both their toughness and femininity. She noted how former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin introduced herself as a vice presidential nominee in 2008 with a joke comparing hockey moms to a pitbull with lipstick.