‘A Woman, Just Not That Woman’: How Sexism Plays Out on the Trail

Women are conscious that small elements of how they present themselves are subject to scrutiny. Representative Madeleine Dean — one of four Democratic women elected to the House last year from Pennsylvania, whose congressional delegation was previously all-male — said an aide would stand in the back of the room during her campaign events, holding up a cardboard sign with a smiley face to remind her to shift the serious expression she naturally wore while listening to voters.

She was also coached, “though I did not take his coaching, not to cross my arms in front of myself because then you look mad,” Ms. Dean said.

These sorts of criticisms were common in the 2016 campaign, not only against Mrs. Clinton but also against Carly Fiorina, who ran in the Republican primary. “Look at that face,” Mr. Trump said at one point, openly mocking Ms. Fiorina’s appearance. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” (Mr. Trump subsequently claimed he had been talking about her persona. Ms. Fiorina, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, said at the time, “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.”)

Because these judgments are so superficial, and their gendered nature so obvious, they draw substantial backlash. But that doesn’t mean they stop.

“The women who run are still going to be, I think, more scrutinized about their appearance,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “I would love to think that they won’t get the kind of comments that Hillary Clinton got about, ‘Why is she yelling at me?’ ‘Why doesn’t she smile more?’ I’d love to think that that’s all gone now, but I don’t believe that to be true.”

History influences what voters see as normal. And for 230 years in the United States, presidential leadership has been male.

For many decades, this was a self-sustaining cycle: Female candidates were outside the norm, so they didn’t win, so they remained outside the norm. But the history of women’s representation at other levels of government shows that the norm can shift.