200203 politics
Image Credit: Gulf News

Several fresh young faces have begun to emerge in politics. There’s Beto O’Rourke, 46, a Texas congressman who lost his Senate race against Ted Cruz last year and still broke some early fund-raising records. There’s Mayor Pete (last name Buttigieg), just 37 and a gay veteran, who ran the city of South Bend, Indiana (population: 102,245). And there’s the longer shot Andrew Yang, 44, corporate lawyer.

The Democrats vying for 2020 have been runing a remarkable age gamut. The youngest, Buttigieg, was 37; the oldest, Bernie Sanders, is 77. T“Promise” itself is gendered. Research consistently shows that in workplaces, women tend to be promoted once their managers see them perform well; men are promoted if managers believe in their potential to do well.

We’re running the same experiment in politics: Voters, donors and journalists are all excited by the great leadership potential of young men who leapfrog up the political ladder. They expect women to prove themselves before they move forward.

Even the prominent young Democratic women making headlines outside of the presidential campaigns — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley — are doing so in this more traditionally female way of a step-by-step rise through legislative bodies


And so women don’t move forward as quickly. Women are more likely than men to enter politics later in life, having spent years shoring up the experience, accomplishments and recognition necessary to be considered credible contenders for higher office.

Women start low and climb up, which means they may not climb as high. Women also tend to run for more collaborative legislative positions (school board, state legislature, Congress) rather than executive ones (mayor, governor, president). Men do the opposite, seeking executive roles, starting early and skipping ahead.

New crop of leaders

Even the prominent young Democratic women making headlines outside of the presidential campaigns — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley — are doing so in this more traditionally female way of a step-by-step rise through legislative bodies.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 20190723
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., speaks as, from left, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., listen during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington Image Credit: AP

None of the female presidential contenders have been elected to major executive roles. In a political environment where “fresh faces” are rewarded, this gives men an advantage. (It also seems to be largely benefiting white men this time around — just ask Julian Castro, 44, whose longer, ladder-climbing resume has resulted in anaemic press coverage). We want something new, but for women, unfamiliarity and youth end up being tied to incompetence.

Take Buttigieg, an indisputably intelligent and thoughtful man, whose youth has been wrought to his advantage. “When you run young, your face says you represent change,” Buttigieg notes. Reporters deem him “authoritative and logical and very young,” noting that he’s “at the forefront of a new crop of political leaders.”

He started his political career with a bid for Indiana state treasurer (he lost), then for mayor of South Bend (he won, then won re-election) and then for Democratic National Committee chairman (he dropped out). Then he wanted to be the president of the United States.

Red-district folksiness

It’s not just women’s and men’s paths that look different; it’s also how reporters tell their stories. Gillibrand’s (candidate for the Democratic nomination, she withdrew from the race in August 2019), red-district folksiness got her branded by some as “a country bumpkin who is in over her head.” Buttigieg’s was cast as a bonus — he doesn’t wear a jacket (“I just feel more comfortable with my sleeves rolled up,” he said) and can win in a red state.

Gillibrand entered the Senate as its youngest member, a designation that was an immediate liability. Although she was at times called a “rising star,” she was caricatured as a clawing Tracy Flick, ambitious but unwilling to pay her dues. Her “aggressiveness seems almost gauche, even for a politician,” a journalist wrote. She was cast as “a young woman in a hurry.”

Trevor Noah was certainly right when he said that at 52, Gillibrand is not exactly a “young mom.” But since when is a 46-year-old a “young man”? Both of them would be younger than the average American president, who is a touch over 55 — a statistic that includes a great many men born at a time when many people weren’t expected to live much past 40.

No dreams of presidency

Gillibrand was called “Senator Working Mom,” but O’Rourke’s status as a parent was part of his story, not at the center of it. After losing his Senate race, he took an extended solo road trip to clear his head and blog (or write “in a literary online diary”).

A jaunt that would be portrayed as child abandonment had a woman done it “could help him politically, advancing his offbeat brand,” reporters mused. Few fretted about who was watching his children. He suspended his campaign on November 1, 2019,

Women typically find their family responsibilities to be less flexible. Elizabeth Warren was a young mother and a young law professor at the same time; according to a law school friend, she was also doing all of her family’s shopping, cooking and child care, and nearly dropped out of the workforce as a result.

One doesn’t imagine a Kerouac-style road trip was on the table for Warren as a young mom — and certainly not dreams of the presidency. That all came much later, as it does for most women. And later, of course, means older.

Unfortunately for women, age poses an unsolvable problem: They are seen as too young and inexperienced right up until they are branded too old and tedious. Warren, for example, finds herself put in the same “old” category as Sanders and Joe Biden, even though both men are nearly a decade older than she is.

Men who are more or less the same age as Warren — Sherrod Brown (66), John Hickenlooper (67), Jay Inslee (68) — are not lumped in with the white-hairs. If women in their 40s are “in a hurry,” and women in their 50s are old news, and women in their 60s are just old, when, exactly, is a woman supposed to go to the White House?

Jill Filipovic is a noted American feminist, lawyer and author

More on young people in politics