No one, it is safe to assume, ever told J.F.K. he was too ambitious.
In 1956, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he campaigned aggressively to be vice president, said Keneshia Grant, an associate professor of political science at Howard University. His father, she noted, had even offered to pay for Lyndon B. Johnson’s run if he promised to choose his son as a running mate.
“That was no secret at all,” said Professor Grant, the author of “The Great Migration and the Democratic Party: Black Voters and the Realignment of American Politics in the 20th Century.” “And that was fine. People took him at his word.”
But when Stacey Abrams, the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives and the first Black woman in the country to be a major party’s nominee for governor, stated bluntly in an interview published in April that she “would be an excellent running mate” to Joseph R. Biden Jr. — unapologetically making her case for the No. 2 spot on the ticket — she was criticized as being inadequately self-effacing.
Senator Kamala Harris, one of three Black women considered a front-runner for that slot, has not actually said publicly that she wants the position. But she did of course run for president — causing at least one Democratic donor to remark that she has too much “ambition.”
She can also “rub people the wrong way,” according to Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor who is close with Mr. Biden. And she was seen as being improperly apologetic after she excoriated Mr. Biden on an early debate stage, questioning his policies on busing, with the nerve to later laugh it off as “politics.”
Immodest. Ambitious. Unlikable. These are the strangely enduring criticisms that travel with women in politics, no matter how many firsts keep adding up or how numerous their congressional numbers become.
And they are posed to become even more numerous: New numbers from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University show that a record number of congressional races will now take place between two female candidates, and that a record number of women of color are running.)
And so, those words have reignited another tired debate about sexist double standards, as Mr. Biden slowly — very slowly — inches closer to announcing his running mate. (He is expected to announce his choice this week.)
“What vice president in U.S. history wasn’t ambitious?” Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, asked on MSNBC. Ms. Jarrett is among a group of prominent women who sent a letter to news media leaders last week reminding them of the persistence of double standards in coverage of women in politics. One key bullet point: “Reporting on a woman’s ambition as though the very nature of seeking political office, or any higher job for that matter is not a mission of ambition.”
In a television appearance, Claire McCaskill, the former Democratic senator from Missouri, expressed exasperation with the durability of this trope.
“I have had it up to here with the men out there that are saying that the candidates for vice president are too ambitious or rub people the wrong way,” she said.
“Ambitious women make history, change the world, and win,” Mr. Biden’s campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, said on Twitter.
American politics may have moved beyond a time when a female candidate would be asked if she could bake a blueberry muffin (that was Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to be a running mate on a major party ticket, in 1984, who responded: “Sure can. Can you?”) or whether “hormones” would prevent her from serving in the Oval Office (Carly Fiorina, in 2015), but it surely hasn’t moved that far. And the Black women in contention to be Mr. Biden’s running mate have both gender and race to contend with.
Even smiling has made its way into the equation.
In speaking about Mr. Biden’s shortlist — which includes Ms. Harris, Representative Karen Bass of California and Susan Rice, the former national security adviser to Mr. Obama — Mr. Rendell, 76, said he had noticed that the political stock of Ms. Rice seemed to be rising, because she was smiling during a TV appearance. It was “something that she doesn’t do all that readily” and she was “actually somewhat charming,” he said.
(Ms. Bass, who has said she cannot “envision” herself running for president, has meanwhile been framed as the “anti-Kamala,” setting the two women up in some sort of ambition-related conflict.)
“It’s textbook in a lot of ways,” Professor Grant said. “If you are a Black woman, and you show up in a space with new ideas, asking people to be different than they have before, then you are subject to this criticism about not knowing your place, being too ambitious, wanting too much.”
There has long been a refrain among those who study women’s leadership that women who seek power must do it nicely. Research has advised women to temper their ambitions with warmth — because women are expected to be “warm” — and to self-promote, but carefully, because people tend not to like immodest women.
There is an entire self-help industry devised to teach this kind of female leadership, with tips and tools and tactics for how to rise in a largely white and male-dominated corporate world — where to be successful, a woman must be liked, but to be liked, she must not be too successful, her likability eroded by her professional status. “It’s a classic double bind,” said the sociologist Marianne Cooper, a researcher at Stanford who studies gender and leadership.
Joan C. Williams, who runs the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and is an author of “What Works for Women at Work,” has called this “gender judo”: The idea that women can offset those stereotypically “masculine” behaviors, like ambition, with stereotypically “feminine” behaviors, like warmth or friendliness.
In other words, negotiate, but do it with a smile. (Research from the Carnegie Mellon professor Linda Babcock has found that in a negotiation, smiling can help offset the tendency for a woman to be labeled aggressive.) Win the debate, but apologize for it later. And definitely, definitely don’t laugh.
And yet those temperament modifications have never been available in the same way to Black women — who must navigate what Francis M. Beal, the co-founder of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee of S.N.C.C., labeled “double jeopardy” long ago.
Black women may in fact be more ambitious than white women in the corporate world — as shown in a number of recent studies — but they still face unequal challenges once there, including having their mistakes disproportionately punished.
In one study, “Black Women: Ready to Lead,” from the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank, Black women reported being far more likely than white women to aspire to a powerful position (22 percent of Black professional women versus 8 percent of white women) and more confident in their ability to succeed once they got there (43 percent versus 30 percent).
And yet those women reported feeling stalled in their careers (44 percent of Black women compared with 30 percent of the white women) and that their talents weren’t being recognized by their managers (26 percent versus 17 percent).
Recently, Ms. Harris spoke at a conference for young Black women, Black Girls Lead, subtly addressing the criticism that had been leveled at her.
“There will be a resistance to your ambition,” Ms. Harris said. “There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane,’ because they are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you.”
Perhaps the good news is, it hasn’t.
Last week, the Girls Leadership Institute, a nonprofit, released a study about ambition in girls that it had been working on since the days after Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid.
The study found that 48 percent of Black girls surveyed identified as leaders — the highest of all ethnic groups. One key factor that contributed to that result: having role models.
There is some recent evidence to show that the public perception of ambition has also changed — at least somewhat — over time.
In 2010, Harvard researchers found that voters regarded “power-seeking” women with contempt and anger, but saw power-seeking men as stronger and more competent.
But this month, another study, published in the journal Political Behavior, found that most people didn’t seem to have a problem with ambitious female candidates for office.
“We started the research after Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign for office, and we very much thought, there’s something going on with ambitious women,” said Ana Catalano Weeks, a comparative politics professor at the University of Bath and an author of the study.
And yet, when voters were asked to choose fictional political candidates whose genders were specified — each with personality descriptions that suggested different levels of ambition — “we just found that voters didn’t care,” Ms. Weeks said.
“Our conclusion was kind of like, maybe norms have changed,” she said. “Maybe voters just don’t care about this as much as we thought.”
The study’s other author, Sparsha Saha, a lecturer in government at Harvard, did note that the politicians in the study had a crucial advantage over the women in the running-mate mix and others seeking office this fall.
The politicians in the study — the women whose ambition wasn’t a problem for them — were all hypothetical. Real, human women have yet to see the same results.