Warren faces the affability ceiling

For women candidates, likability test looms

FOR ALL THE talk about the glass ceiling that women face in politics, it turns out the barrier isn’t whether voters think women have the strength or the smarts to do the job, but whether they’re likable enough.

If that idea is a grating one after years of effort by women to show they can wield power and make tough decisions just like the boys, welcome to Elizabeth Warren’s world.

The Massachusetts senator had barely launched her web video on New Year’s Eve announcing a presidential exploratory committee when Politico posted a story that had been sitting in the can anticipating the moment. “Warren battles the ghosts of Hillary,” it was headlined. But the focus wasn’t whether she might repeat any Hillary Clinton policy missteps. Instead, it said the looming question was this: “How does Warren avoid a Clinton redux — written off as too unlikable before her campaign gets off the ground?”

With a bit of a sigh, the Boston Globe and Washington Post pick up the story today, with pieces that explore further the idea of a gender-based double-standard when it comes to a candidate’s likability.

“Like it or not, likability is indeed a much greater factor for female candidates, acknowledged campaign specialists who hope to change that narrative,” writes the Globe’s Stephanie Ebbert.

The Post story points to some signs that the dynamic may be shifting, citing Ayanna Pressley’s congressional campaign here as an example. “I have been asked to not come off as outraged or angry for fear of being labeled an angry black woman,” the paper quoted Pressley as saying during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation battle. “Well, I am angry. And I am outraged. Because this is outrageous,” Pressley said about sexual assault allegations leveled at the Supreme Court nominee.

New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg laments the fact that pundits seem far more focused on whether candidates — especially women — are “sufficiently likable” than what they stand for. “That part already feels exhausting and it hasn’t even begun,” she writes — though it certainly does seem to be well underway.

Ebbert reminds us that it was no right-wing troglodyte but Barack Obama who most famously injected the issue into a high-profile moment, smirking in a 2008 debate with Clinton that she was “likable enough.”

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Fair or not, Warren seems acutely aware of the challenge and has gone out of her way to try to beat back any image of her as cold or aloof. Of course, that carries its own risks, as a livestream of her Instagram feed on New Year’s Eve showing her cracking open beer in her Cambridge kitchen immediately opened her to the charge of not being authentic.

There is a chicken-and-egg quality to the debate, as pundit-types say they are only commenting on an established phenomenon, not endorsing it. Meanwhile, (and mindful of the irony of saying so), the continued focus on the likability factor probably just helps reinforce its place in the conversation.