How Elizabeth Warren decided to run for president—despite the trap of the ‘Impossible Woman’

May 24, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

I once heard from a campaign insider that when Hillary ran for president in 2008, she was told to run “like a man,” meaning that she needed to reassure voters that she could be as tough and unemotional as a man. Voters needed to know whether she—whether any woman—could be trusted to make really hard decisions, such as using nuclear weapons or negotiating with ruthless foreign dictators.

But during that same campaign, she got slammed for being too unemotional and too guarded, for not showing enough of her authentic self, for not being likable. She was criticized, in other words, for not living up to the classic stereotype of the ideal woman. Throughout the campaign, Hillary was simultaneously told to reject this stereotype and to embrace it. She needed to be Woman and Not-Woman. Sure, she could definitely win—she just needed to be the Impossible Woman, the one human being on earth who could be two completely contradictory things at the same moment.

It’s easy to dismiss the classic stereotype of a woman as absurdly old-fashioned, but it still packs a punch—especially when people draw a mental picture of a leader, and particularly when that leader has always been a man. The sharp contrast between deep-seated images of the ideal woman and portraits of the ideal leader creates cross-currents and doubts. The disconnect between the two images heightens discomfort and scrutiny. And for any woman running for president of the United States, it pulls even a highly qualified candidate in two opposite directions, demanding that she be two contradictory things at once. And then, even more remarkably, she must pretend that no contradiction exists.

The Impossible Woman trap echoed in my head for years.

Elizabeth Warren-Persist

In 2016, Hillary Clinton, an extremely accomplished and immensely qualified public servant, was once again caught in the trap. In 2020, the fact that half a dozen women ran for president was greeted with great fanfare. Yay! But the trap lay just below the surface, and I wasn’t the only one caught in it. Just one example: Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and I all had better campaign win-loss records than any of the leading men. But the question was never whether a man could be elected. Despite our stronger records, it was always, “Can a woman win?”

Consider the question that regularly got tossed at us from voters and reporters: Are you treated differently as a presidential candidate because you’re a woman? The two possible answers expose the trap. First answer: “Yes, I’m treated differently.” A woman responding that way would immediately hear a swarming mass of people whisper, “Whiner,” or “Weakling,” or “Complainer.” Next would come the inevitable accusation that she’d just “played the gender card,” as well as the predictable comment that she was “just not tough enough.” Now try out the opposite answer: “No, of course not.” That will get a laugh, because at least half the population will wonder what planet she’s living on.

So far as I know, no one ever asked the men in the 2020 race if they felt they were treated differently because they were men. And if that sounds like whining, please reread the preceding paragraph.

When I began thinking seriously about running for president, I knew I didn’t have some magic power that would allow me to succeed where other women had failed. I also knew that, regardless of my gender, I would face plenty of other problems and challenges if I decided to run. But that didn’t mean I would give up. It just meant that I needed to be realistic—and I needed a plan.

By late 2018 I had made up my mind. I would run, and I would run the same way I’d run for the Senate in 2012: I would throw body and soul into it. I would set my sights high and work as hard and as smart as I possibly could. I would build a great team, support grassroots organizing, and be generous to other Democratic candidates. I would talk about the ideas and issues I deep-down cared about. I would lay out every plan that I truly believed could make a difference.

And I would do more. I would put my unflinching determination on display, sounding the call for a fight against some of the most powerful people and corporations in our nation. I would also put my full heart on display, telling stories that only a woman could tell. I would do pinkie promises with little girls and give hugs to their mothers and grandmothers. I would fill up every space with ideas and energy and optimism. I would hope that my being a woman wouldn’t matter so much.

And—please, please, please—I would show everyone that a woman could win.

Excerpted from PERSIST by Elizabeth Warren. Published by Metropolitan Books. Copyright © 2021 by Elizabeth Warren. All rights reserved.

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