Petulant, irritating, aloof, mean – just some of the adjectives used to describe Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential elections. Now history is repeating itself with the candidates for the Democratic nomination.

Judging by what people say, you would think everyone is in favor of women leaders. “It doesn’t matter what sex you are, it’s whether you’re up to the job or not,” is the common refrain. When it comes down to it, however, female candidates still have to put up with criticism, insults and offensive nicknames. What they have to endure is far worse than anything men have to go through, and is always accompanied by the same old variation on a theme: “I’ve nothing against women, but she’s just not right.”

The Hillary Example

It is hard to overstate the hatred that Hillary Clinton attracted when she ran for nomination against Barack Obama in 2008, and again in the election against Donald Trump in 2016. There was very little she wasn’t accused of being – petulant, irritating, distant, mean, too self-confident; some called her a feminist controlled by men due to her support of her husband during the Lewinsky scandal. In other words: Women were fine, just not her. As the New York Times notes, it is no coincidence that the same adjectives are being used today to criticize the six female candidates for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election. The truth is that in the U.S., just as elsewhere, much of the electorate is reluctant to vote for a woman but unwilling to admit it.

A glance at the latest Inter-Parliamentary Union rankings on the number of female representatives in governments confirms this impression: The U.S. is 75th out of 191 countries (and was as far down as 97th in 2016). The highest-ranking countries are Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia and Mexico; the first Western countries to appear are the Nordic nations – Sweden (7th), Finland (11th), and Norway (13th) – closely followed by France (14th) and Spain (16th). Italy is 28th, 10 places ahead of Great Britain. These figures are significant and shine a light on the evident prejudice against women. The vote was granted to African Americans in the U.S. in 1870*; 50 years later, in 1920, women won the right to vote – 14 years after Finland, 18 years after Australia and 27 years after New Zealand.

The Role of the Media

This time, however, it will be difficult to hide behind the usual “I’ve nothing against a female president, but just not this one” defense; There are six female candidates for the Democratic nomination, making it difficult to believe that all six are not good enough. Prejudice should, therefore, be easier to spot, as in the case of Amy Klobuchar, the senator for Minnesota. Soon after she declared her candidacy, she was portrayed in the papers as a leader with a difficult character. Would the same have happened to a man?

Authoritative or Arrogant?

As a sign of different standards, when a man is decisive in stating something, he is authoritative; when a woman does the same thing, she is arrogant. A stern face in a male candidate is seen as guaranteeing trustworthiness, while it is characterized as aloofness in a female candidate. Hillary Clinton’s response in 2015 to an accusation of “shouting” in relation to gun control has gone down in history: “I'm not shouting. It's just that when women talk, some people think we're shouting”, said the former Secretary of State.

*Editor’s note: Although the right to vote was granted to formerly enslaved males in 1870, disenfranchisement began soon after in Southern states, where the majority of African Americans lived. Many African Americans were not permitted to vote until after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.