If Hillary Doesn’t “Look Presidential,” Blame History

With the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

Does Hillary Clinton “look presidential?” Donald Trump says no, and he’s been making this point for at least the past three months of the presidential campaign. But simply reminding voters that Clinton doesn’t “look presidential” may also cue underlying gender biases.

As early as May of this year, Trump began beating this drum. “Do you think Hillary looks presidential?” he asked a California audience. “I don’t think so.” In June and July, he took to Twitter to reaffirm the notion that Clinton doesn’t look presidential to him. He used the same line of attack in Virginia and Iowa in August. And this week, he doubled down on those comments in an interview with ABC’s David Muir.

On Labor Day, Trump asked a crowd of supporters in Cleveland the same question from California. “Does she look presidential, fellas?” he said. “Give me a break.” Muir pushed Trump to explain what he means when he delivers this message. Trump responded, “I just don’t think she has a presidential look and you need a presidential look.”

Trump may have dodged an explanation for attacking Clinton’s capacity to appear presidential in that interview, but few can miss the gendered reality into which he is tapping. For 227 years, U.S. presidents have looked male. Clinton does not. Hence, she doesn’t have the “presidential look” that has, until now, seemed to be required of those sitting in the Oval Office.

By reminding voters that Clinton fails to meet a standard that has been so durable in presidential contests, Trump seeks to raise doubts about her ability to do the job. This strategy is not new—and Clinton is far from the first woman to confront similar claims.

In a book released this year, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) recalls combatting stereotypes of appearance in her bid for the U.S. Senate. “I’m not particularly glamorous-looking,” she writes, “and it was the idea that I just didn’t look the part.” Ann Lewis, who was working for Mikulski during her 1986 bid, was confronted by those doubts among political insiders. “You’ve got to face it, Ann,”a male columnist and friend told her. “Barbara Mikulski doesn’t look like a senator.” She told him, “You’re right. Jesse Helms looks like a senator. I want to change what senators look like.”

But changing images of political leadership, especially at the highest levels of American politics, is not easy. More than two decades after Mikulski won her Senate seat, 2010 Vermont gubernatorial candidate Deb Markowitz (D) told me, “I’m not the picture of governor that people have in their heads… I’m definitely ‘other.’” The “othering” that she experienced was not only due to her gender, but also her four-foot ten-inch stature.

In the same year, Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Matt Entenza (D) repeatedly touted his height on the campaign trail, claiming that the tallest candidate for governor always wins. His claim more than highlighted a physical attribute of men. It reminded voters that height communicates the “gravitas” needed for executive office, a trait that is also less likely to be attributed to women—including his primary opponent, Margaret Anderson Kelliher.

The importance of height has also been investigated at the presidential level. Multiple studies have found a relationship between presidential height and political success, with taller candidates faring better in presidential contests. There are a number of possible reasons for this relationship: Some research suggests that taller men perceive and exercise greater interpersonal dominance, which may bolster their own political confidence or ambition; other research focuses on voters’ valuation of height in evaluations of “ideal national leaders” and, more specifically, “presidential greatness.” In an analysis of five surveys of experts’ views of presidential greatness between 2005 and 2012, a team of researchers found that taller presidents were considered to be better leaders, viewed as having better communication abilities and rated as showing higher overall performance than shorter presidents.

The desire for taller leaders may appear only loosely related to gender to some. Sure, women are—on average—shorter than men, but that’s not a universal truth. (Indiana’s candidate for lieutenant governor, Suzanne Crouch (R), joked recently that she—at 5 foot 11 inches—and her running mate are the tallest ticket in the gubernatorial race this year.) But height is associated with masculinity. A widely cited study released in 2014 found that men are perceived as more masculine if they appear taller and heavier. Thus, stature may actually help presidential candidates meet the masculine credentials for the job.

Donald Trump is about eight inches taller than Hillary Clinton, but he has yet to emphasize the physical attributes that make him appear more presidential than her—though he has touted other physical attributes that affirm his masculinity. He touts his masculinity in other ways, and in contrast to his opponent’s lack of it. From questioning Clinton’s strength and stamina to raising doubts about her ability to take on ISIS, Trump taps into gender stereotypes of feminine vulnerability and weakness.

A 2007 study of British parliamentarians found some evidence that voters were more likely to assign traits like warmth to female images and traits like strength to male images. In a presidential election simulation that presented participants with information for two candidates identical in all ways—including name—but represented through two different images of a man and a woman, political scientists Tessa Ditonto, Allison Hamilton and David Redlawsk found that subjects sought more and different types of information about the woman candidate.

The effects are not necessarily negative for women, but these findings do indicate that simply using images to cue differences in candidate gender at the presidential level might at least raise more questions about the candidate’s preparedness or plans for taking office.

Another article by Ditonto finds that women candidates are harmed more than men by information that casts doubts on their competence. Characterizing Clinton as unpresidential, and thus implying incompetence, may also exploit this potential for bias in voter perceptions.

Of course, Clinton is no generic woman candidate. Her individuation in voters’ minds reduces the likelihood that they will use stereotypical gender cues, including those based on appearance, in evaluating her. For that reason, Trump’s gender-whistling strategy may be far less effective now than in other electoral contexts.

For many, the fact that Clinton disrupts the literal face of presidential leadership is cause for celebration. In changing what it means to look presidential, candidates like Clinton or Barack Obama expand our collective imagination of who is deemed worthy of the office. That means disrupting the white male standard that has dominated presidential politics for over two centuries.

Perhaps that’s what’s rubbing Trump and his “fellas” the wrong way.

Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is owned by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar.