Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar announced her 2020 presidential candidacy on Sunday in the middle of a Minneapolis snowstorm. But by then, a firestorm was already underway: Klobuchar, despite her “Minnesota nice” public persona, had been branded, in reports by Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, as a “difficult” and “demeaning” boss, accused by anonymous former staffers of “bursts of cruelty” and “bouts of explosive rage.” Buzzfeed’s headline invoked Shakespearean levels of drama, decrying Klobuchar’s “wrath.” (In response, Klobuchar said: “I have high expectations for the people that work for me. But I have high expectations for this country.”)
An oversimplified and misguided debate ensued: Either you agree that Klobuchar’s alleged mistreatment of staff is wrong, regardless of her gender or you believe the emergent narrative about her is sexist and wouldn’t be equally emphasized about a male candidate. Jezebel, for one, rallied for the former, writing, “The only way to excuse the Klobuchar allegations is to conflate cruelty with feminism. It’s the reductive Bad Ass #GirlBoss model of empowerment that celebrates virtually anything women do—because a woman did it.”
I, on the other hand, have an alternate proposal: Both sides of the debate are true. Neither argument is mutually exclusive. No one has to choose! It isn’t right and it should not be the norm for male or female politicians to be cruel to staffers. And, at the very same time, a mighty, pervasive, and corrosive double standard belies the Klobuchar stories. (To deny that, or feebly shrug off the sexism of it all, must be blissful ignorance.) Women—especially high-profile women seeking leadership positions—are not given the same space to be as angry or as aggressive as men, and we won’t be equal until we are.
“We just expect women to be nicer people. We expect them to be kinder people. We expect them to be more empathetic,” Soraya Chemaly, author of Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, told me, pointing to U.S. studiesshowing that girls are held to higher standards of self-control, self regulation, and politeness. “When a woman is none of those things, it’s unsettling to people. When she’s none of those things and seeking power, it’s like she’s sinning,” Chemaly said. Meanwhile, domineering, even mercurial male leaders are expected and accepted. “For men, anger and dominance and power are seamlessly connected to ideals of masculinity,” Chemaly noted.
President Trump is a low bar—through the floor, the basement, and down to the earth’s core, truly. I’d never suggest that any politician should measure him or herself against his low “standard.” But it’s no coincidence that caustically firing people for sport (and for payment) on reality TV and having a long-standing reputation for being boorish in business was never quite framed as disqualifying to his presidential run. If anything, it was spun as a kind of advantage—what a tough negotiator he’d be! (This was before he all but fell at Putin’s feet and was vanquished by Nancy Pelosi, of course).
Abrasive behavior was a small thing for Trump, but is shaping up to be a big thing—if not the thing—for Klobuchar. Days before she officially declared her run, the stories had already dropped, ensuring the “difficult boss” narrative would be inextricably linked to her announcement. Yes, as activist Tim Nicolai pointed out in a much-shared Twitter thread, similarly damaging articles have been written about male politicians . . . but they aren’t exactly created equal. A few of the reports he touted touched on toxic workplaces that also veered into potentially unlawful sexual harassment—none of the reports about Klobuchar tread on that territory. A 2008 New York Times piece on (pre-Carlos Danger) Anthony Weiner detailed his yelling, fist-pounding, and cursing at work, but that criticism felt like a sidenote, proof that he wasn’t a pushover—and it hardly became the overarching narrative on the then-congressman and New York City mayoral hopeful. By the time Weiner dropped out of the mayor’s race the following year, the Times didn’t even mention his treatment of staff. Rather, it mourned that Weiner’s exit “deprives the campaign of its most colorful and confrontational candidate”; a man “known as a tireless political street fighter—and trash talker.”
Though it’s still early days for the 2020 race, and for Klobuchar’s bid in particular, it’s safe to assume the stories about the Minnesota senator will not be as swiftly forgotten. This is a slice of sexism in itself: it’s not so much that it’s unfair to raise or report the allegations about Klobuchar, but it is unfair to let them overtake her candidacy and undermine her credibility in a way that they would not a man’s. “Toxic workplaces that aren’t good for anybody. Regardless of who’s doing it, it’s undeniably not good,” Chemaly said. “But, in fact, it does matter who’s doing it, because there’s such disparate treatment of men and women when it comes to these issues.” Double standards, she adds, aren’t just inconvenient and unfair: they “undermine our ability to have a healthy democracy.”
Unfortunately, sexism reaches peak levels for women like Klobuchar (and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren) who dare to run for president, compared to women who run for lower offices. “It comes down to the difference between women running to be in charge of something and women running to be a part of a governing body,” Caitlin Moscatello, who shadowed women candidates across the country ahead of the 2018 midterm elections for the forthcoming book, See Jane Win: The Inspiring Story of the Women Changing American Politics, told me. “The blatant, textbook attacks on female presidential candidates so far really prove that.” See: disproportionate attention paid to what Moscatello calls “semi-scandals,” like whether Gillibrand was too tough on former Senator Al Franken (not to mention the question of her fried chicken eating) and Warren’s so-called likability—over, um, a policy?
In the past, women candidates were told to rise above the semi-scandalous narratives that dogged them. One key difference in the wake of those historic midterms? Women running for president (and, thankfully, it’s no longer just one) may be prepared to follow the lead of the record number of women elected to Congress (rip a page from the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez school of social media, perhaps?) and address head-on the lingering sexism in politics.
“This is something that has rapidly shifted,” Moscatello said. “Women are clapping back.” It’s about time.