In announcing her campaign for the Republican presidential nomination this week, Nikki Haley made a subtle reference to the historic nature of her candidacy.
“I don’t put up with bullies,” Haley said in a video that launched her bid to become the first female president of the U.S. “And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”
Haley has plenty of accomplishments, including becoming the first woman elected governor of South Carolina and representing the U.S. at the United Nations. But her introduction captured the balancing act women — particularly conservative women — often navigate as they aspire to win the top job in American politics.
They must show toughness to prove they can compete against rivals who are almost always men for a job that has only been held by men. But there’s also something of an invisible line that can’t be crossed for fear of being viewed as too tough and repelling voters.
“We’ve seen higher levels of Republican women running and winning in recent elections,” said Kelly Dittmar, director of research and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “But what you also see these women often doing is working hard to meet that double bind. … It’s like, ‘I’m tough, but I’m also feminine. I’m also meeting my kind of feminine expectations.’”
Sexism in politics is hardly limited to one political party, with women in public life often under pressure to appear “likable” in ways that aren’t expected of men. During a Democratic primary debate in 2008, a male moderator pressed Hillary Clinton on the “likability issue” in relation to her rival, Barack Obama.
“I don’t think I’m that bad,” Clinton responded. Obama broke in to say, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.”
More recently, prominent Democratic women have also sought to project toughness in their campaigns. Sharice Davids, a former mixed martial arts fighter, sparred in a 2018 ad for a Kansas congressional seat. Amy McGrath, who challenged Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in 2020, highlighted her experience as a Marine fighter pilot.
But the dynamics are different, Dittmar said, in Republican politics, where voters tend to have more traditional views about stereotypical gender roles. That can incentivize Republican women seeking top offices to demonstrate both their toughness and femininity. She noted how former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin introduced herself as a vice presidential nominee in 2008 with a joke comparing hockey moms to a pitbull with lipstick.
“It’s another way to cue” to voters that candidates are both tough and feminine, Dittmar said.
Haley’s formal announcement in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday was peppered with examples. A congressman described Haley as leading with “an iron fist in a velvet glove.” The mother of Otto Warmbier, the young American who died after he was held and tortured in North Korea, said Haley taught her how to fight but also checked on her with the compassion of a fellow mom. And Haley herself called on voters to send “a tough-as-nails woman to the White House.”
Haley is one of only five Republican women to launch prominent campaigns for the office this century. By comparison, 12 Democratic women have been prominent candidates, including six in 2020, according to CAWP. The 12 include Clinton as the party’s 2016 nominee and a 2020 candidate, Kamala Harris, who became the country’s first female vice president.
Women face other hurdles their male peers do not, including online abuse that overwhelmingly targets women, especially women of color.
Haley’s main competition so far for the nomination, former President Donald Trump, has a long record of insulting his rivals, targeting women with sexist attacks including criticizing their appearance.
Clinton’s campaign accused Trump during the 2016 election of repeatedly interrupting her during a debate, saying it resembled a frustrating experience many women have with men. Trump also made critical remarks about the appearance of the last major Republican female candidate to challenge him for the presidency, businesswoman Carly Fiorina.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the last of six women to drop out of the party’s 2020 presidential primary, referenced sexism as a factor, noting the two remaining hopefuls were white men. Trump said her problem was actually a “lack of talent” and called her mean and unlikable.
Before Haley made her bid official, Trump called her “a very ambitious person,” telling conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt that Haley “just couldn’t stay in her seat.” He also said he essentially gave Haley his blessing before she reversed course on an earlier decision not to challenge him. “I said, ‘You know what, Nikki, if you want to run, you go ahead and run.’”
Haley, a former accountant and state legislator who became South Carolina’s first female and first Indian American governor, is no stranger to sexist and racist attacks.
The daughter of Indian immigrants, she has written and talked about growing up in a small town as the only brown-skinned family. During her 2010 campaign for governor, a state lawmaker used a racial slur to reference her. He later apologized.
Former Rep. Susan Brooks of Indiana, who led GOP efforts to recruit and elect more women to the U.S. House, called Haley’s candidacy “good for the party” and the country.
Olivia Perez-Cubas is spokeswoman for Winning For Women, which formed to help elect more GOP women after Democratic women led a takeover of the U.S. House in 2018. She said the group wants to ensure the Republican Party is representative of the U.S., which means it needs more diversity, including more women.
She is also hopeful that having more women in office or running as candidates will help Republicans attract more female voters, who have been more likely to support Democrats than Republicans in recent presidential elections. AP VoteCast, a broad survey of the electorate, shows 55% of women voted for Joe Biden in 2020 and 43% voted for Trump.
“Voters like to see and hear themselves reflected,” she said. “And when we can put forward a strong candidate that’s a woman, that’s great for everyone.”
Still, Perez-Cubas acknowledged that just as in many careers, the bar for women is “always just a little bit higher.”
Republican businesswoman Tudor Dixon was the first woman to be the GOP nominee for governor in Michigan, defeating four male rivals in the 2022 primary. Her nomination was surprising to some voters, Dixon said, including one woman who liked the Republican’s policies but said, “I just can’t vote for you because you have four girls and I don’t think you should be leaving them.”
Michigan was one of five states where 2022 gubernatorial contests were between two women, a U.S. record. But it also led to “disgusting” comparisons between herself and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Dixon said, such as who was younger or more physically fit — discussions that rarely happen in contests between two men.
She applauded Haley for getting into the race, saying it’s not an easy thing to do.
“You are personally attacked. You put yourself out there, and it’s hard,” she said. “But young women should see that they can do this, and that the future is that women are doing the same things that men are doing.”
Evelyn Sanguinetti, who was Illinois’ first Latina lieutenant governor when she served with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, had similar experiences on the campaign trail. She was excited about Haley’s bid, noting the historic nature of electing a woman who is of Indian descent and could, she said, lead with empathy and compassion at a time when the country is greatly divided.
“I’d like for our daughters to see that, because we’ve been seeing a lot of males, particularly white males, for a really long time,” Sanguinetti said.
In her Wednesday speech, Haley made a point to eschew so-called identity politics. But she stood on stage wearing the white of the suffragette movement and had a message to her rivals.
“As I set out on this new journey I will simply say this,” Haley said. “May the best woman win.”