Women in Politics: An Uphill Battle

By Jana Eismann

“Annalena Baerbock is a terrible mother! She cares nothing for her children!” Even before she officially became the Grünen’s candidate for the chancellery, Annalena Baerbock had to face the blatant sexism of politics. In every interview, she was asked how she would manage Germany’s top position while also taking care of her two young daughters. The German term “Rabenmutter”, a wilfully negligent mother, was tossed around immediately. A reference to the mistaken assumption that ravens oust their young from the nest to avoid having to feed them, the term is often applied to working mothers. Especially in conservative circles the term is used with fervour to insult women deviating from the “traditional family image” – in Baerbock’s case, her husband will be taking care of the majority of their day-to-day household chores. Baerbock’s critics quickly jumped on the bandwagon and added Baerbock’s perceived shortcomings as a mother to their list of reasons against her nomination. But that motherhood can be compatible with leading positions is something that has already been proven by the ascents of Finnish prime minister Sanna Marin and her Danish colleague Mette Frederiksen, to name only a few success stories of working mothers.

Baerbock’s male contender Markus Söder, father of three teenage children, faced no similar accusations of neglect or questions about his children. The families of male politicians are never brought up in debates about their qualifications. Barack Obama had two daughters roughly the same age as Annalena Baerbock’s when he was elected into the Oval Office. Did anyone ask him about being a good father while also having a demanding career? Of course not. Because only female politicians have to jump through the hoops of motherhood.

Motherhood, as in Baerbock’s case, is a very common theme in work-related sexism. Any young woman with a career is used to having potential motherhood hanging over her head like a sword of Damocles. “Any day now, she will get pregnant and leave.” “Her child might get sick and she will have to drop everything.” Hiring and promoting young women are HR-minefields, because motherhood could supposedly change a woman’s priorities at any moment – or make training a new hire to replace her necessary. Especially in politics, having a family and working are clearly seen incompatible, although many women work and raise children at the same time just fine. Men are fathers while also pursuing careers and nobody thinks twice about it. Funny, how for women having children is a burden weighing them down while for men, having children is an admirable asset – he must be promoted immediately, he is providing for a family! Or if politics are concerned: she is a terrible mother for abandoning her children for work; he is such an empathic man because having children means he cares for others.

Jacinda Ardern, incumbent Prime Minister of New Zealand, certainly proved that being a mother does not restrict a woman’s ability to lead a nation. Three years ago, she became the second woman in history to give birth while serving as the head of a nation. Announcing her pregnancy only days before taking office, she was heavily criticized by her opponents for not being open about her family plans with the people and for taking time off for the birth so soon after taking over. Despite the critique, Ardern remained a popular and effective politician, who can count her decisive responses to the Corona-crisis as well as to the tragic mass-shooting in Christchurch in 2019 among her accomplishments. But still it is clear what dominated the international press about this successful woman: Even without a quick Google search, everyone knows about her giving birth while holding office. Somehow the focus remained not on Ardern’s successes but predominantly on her motherhood, showing yet again that female politicians have a harder time getting recognized for their achievements – in Ardern’s case her impressive handling of recent national crises – than men will ever have.

Recognition is also hard to achieve because often enough all accomplishments of a female politician are tied to her gender. In Annalena Baerbock’s case, for example, many sceptics think she only got the nomination of her party because she is a woman – and putting women into leading positions is exactly the kind of left-wing feminist propaganda the Grünen party stand for in the eyes of its opponents. Thinking like this discredits all the hard work Baerbock put in to get where she is now. She earned that position on merit, not on the basis of her gender. Claiming anything else is saying that nothing a woman ever does will earn her a position – she can only get a position handed to her in the name of radical feminism and to fill the quota. If Baerbock’s opponent Robert Habeck had won the Grünen nomination, nobody would have suggested it is because he is a man. Everyone would have assumed that he was more qualified, the better fit or simply polled better. Only a woman’s victory could ever be questioned the way Annalena Baerbock’s is now.

There is an obvious double standard in politics, where men seemingly can do no wrong and women can do no right. A self-assured woman is a “pushy bitch”, a self-assured man is confident and knows how to stand his ground. During the 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton, an experienced stateswoman with decades of expertise, was often called an assertive bitch by critics; too cold, too unapproachable to vote for. (As first lady, she was once compared to the ruthless Lady Macbeth for her outspokenness.) Trump, on the other hand, never had to worry about likability. Terribly ill-mannered, he could be as rude, pushy and arrogant as he liked – in fact, those very attributes won him many votes. What was celebrated in Trump was demonized in Clinton, even if Clinton’s arrogance was only a fraction of the arrogance Trump displayed. This paradox suggests Clinton could only lose: Her confidence made her unlikable, but not showing confidence would have been equally criticised.

An even worse hurdle for women to cross is the incredibly infuriating prejudice that women are too emotional to lead. A study by the Georgetown University found that about 13% of Americans still believe that men are emotionally better suited for politics than women.[1] This stereotype should long be a thing of the past and yet, women continue to be accused of being “too emotional” – by strangers on the internet and even by their own colleagues. Canadian MP Michelle Rempel Garner remembered an incident where another MP suggested they talk when she was “less emotional”.[2] US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, always a popular target for sexist comments online, was attacked by a reporter for “reinforcing the stereotype that women are too emotional for politics” with her “frequent crying”.[3] A woman behaving like US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh – openly showing emotions – did in his confirmation hearing would have never been confirmed to any position. There are so many examples of male politicians falling apart emotionally at the slightest setback while female politicians, used to intense criticism and scrutiny, stoically carry on. And yet, women are deemed to be too emotional. Men, meanwhile, routinely get away with the behaviour women are accused of and do not even realize it.

A closer look at Clinton’s and Trump’s respective scandals further reveals how female politicians are always judged more harshly than their male counterparts. Clinton’s relatively minor scandal – work-related emails sent from a private email-account – was blown completely out of proportion, while Trump’s decades-long criminal business dealings, dubious taxes and sexual assault accusations were swept under the rug. If a couple of emails were enough for millions of people to ask for Clinton to be jailed, what would have happened if she had settled sexual assault lawsuits like Trump did on the regular? Conservatives would have frothed at the mouth with rage. Clinton also saw her moral character extensively questioned by critics because she forgave her husband’s extramarital affair. Trump having an extramarital affair, meanwhile, was of little importance.

Trump himself touched on this inequal treatment of scandals when, in reference to his supporters’ loyalty, he proclaimed that he “could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody, and [he] wouldn’t lose any voters […].”[4] In other words, no scandal – not even coldblooded murder – could ever hurt him. Clinton, meanwhile, joked that she had “a feeling that by the end of this evening [she’s] going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened”[5] during the first presidential debate in 2016. It was this double-standard where women always draw the shorter straw that eventually cost Clinton the presidency although she was clearly the better fit. Women have to fight twice as hard as men to make it in politics and even then sexism can always thwart them at the finishing line. All this is not to say that the behaviour of female candidates should not be closely scrutinized. It definitely should – but in the same manner the behaviour of male candidates is.

Appearance is another area where women are consistently under closer scrutiny than men. Especially in politics, competence is closely connected to appearance. A woman paying no close attention to her dress because she is more focused on her policies? The talk about her dress would drown any talk about policies out. Angela Merkel, who is not exactly a fashion icon, has had much (clearly unwanted) attention paid to her pant suits – so much so that they became signature. Men are not held to such standards. Does any male politician have a signature style? They all get away with wearing the same dark suit all day, every day. While every stray hair on a woman’s head is criticized, men like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump can get elected to the highest offices of their respective countries looking like they have never seen a mirror up close. Imagine a female politician showing up with Johnson’s wild hair or Trump’s bad spray tan. Could she even try for the lowest office before someone laughed her offstage?         

Anyone who thinks feminism has done all it can and that men and women are treated equally in western society clearly needs a reality check. Politics is just one of the many spheres in which women have a much harder time asserting themselves than men have. The current debate around Annalena Baerbock’s parenting skills is just another example in a lengthy list of examples. I hope to see no more in the future but realistically society still has a long way to go.

[1] Anthony P. Carnevale, Nicole Smith, Kathryn Peltier Campbell: May the Best Woman Win? Education and Bias against Women in American Politics, Washington D.C., 2019. Link Women_in_Politics.pdf (georgetown.edu) (accessed on Jul 7 2021)

[2] Michelle Rempel: Confront your Sexism, in: National Post, Apr 18 2016. Link Michelle Rempel: Confront your sexism | National Post (accessed on Jul 7 2021)

[3] Molly Prince [mollyfprince] (Oct 15 2019). I’ll say it: @AOC’s frequent crying only reinforces the stereotype that women are too emotional for politics. [Tweet]. Twitter. Link Molly Prince “I’ll say it: @AOC’s frequent crying only reinforces the stereotype that women are too emotional for politics.”

[4] Donald Trump, Campaign Rally Speech, Sioux Centre, Iowa, on Jan 23 2016.

[5] Hillary Clinton, First Presidential Debate, Hempstead, New York, on Sep 26 2016.