For days after the Republican debate, Donald Trump’s sexist comments, candidates’ and pundits’ reactions to them, and forecasts on how they might influence the trajectory of the presidential race dominated the news. Nearly every presidential candidate was been asked about and/or responded to them, with varying degrees of condemnation and denunciation. Even the most conservative pundits – some of whom have been accused of similarly sexist commentary — called out Trump for crossing the line. But what comes next? As the news media moves beyond Trump’s comments about Megyn Kelly, what’s the second-day (or week) story on gender politics in the 2016 presidential race? Will the collective ire evoked toward Trump’s comments elicit any more substantive conversation about the gender realities they made evident? Here are a few ideas for conversations we should be having to elevate the gender dialogue in the race.
1. Sexism is a System, Not a Soundbite.
Sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees, and, in this race, Donald Trump has planted multiple trees in our line of sight. Each comment that Trump has made evokes another batch of tweets, news stories, and denunciations. But his comments are merely symptoms of a more systemic reality – of a forest that has long presented harsher conditions to the women than to the men who have entered it.
The gender power dynamics of American politics, and society, that privilege masculinity and men are reinforced by behaviors that work to discredit or disempower women. These behaviors can be overt (like Trump’s comments), covert, or subtle — such as calling women by their first names while credentialing men with their titles. Women are not the only ones who lose in a sexist system. Allocating power along gendered lines means that men who don’t conform to masculine expectations are also punished.
Trump’s soundbites are just a few of many trees that have populated the forest of gender dynamics candidates must navigate. Moving forward, let’s pay attention to the myriad, and systemic, ways in which power is allocated in today’s presidential politics, and to whom it is given.
2. Women Voters are Not Monolithic.
Many commentators have asked how women voters will respond to Trump’s comments. Will they reject him? Will they abandon the Republican Party? Will they flee to the women candidates in the race? Women voters are essential to any candidate, but, just like the 46% of the electorate made up of men, they are not monolithic. That means that predicting their behavior, or working to influence it, requires recognizing the diversity of experiences and priorities they represent and, for candidates, identifying which women will matter most to their success.
In my book, I urge candidates to view women voters as multifaceted instead of a uniform bloc with solely gender-based interests, concerns, or demands. Next, I challenge candidates and their teams to integrate those issues, credentials, and tactics typically targeted to women voters as part of campaigns’ universal appeals instead of sidelining them as “special interests.” Mainstreaming the content of gender-based appeals is an important step in revaluing those issues and credentials most often attributed to women, opening the political process to women candidates and voters alike, as well as expanding the terms of engagement on which men can run and win.
But candidates are not the only ones who too often ignore the diversity among women. All of us, including those of us whose work revolves around the idea of gender-based differences, have a responsibility to redefine women voters in ways that reflect the complexities assumed for their male counterparts. Important scholarship has recognized the danger of essentializing “women voters,” defining “women’s issues,” or ignoring the multiple identities with which women and men experience and engage the world around them. This conversation is far from over in academia, and is one worthy of discussion as we analyze women’s political behavior in this presidential race.
3. Making Women Visible (and Raising Women’s Voices) Matters.
One route toward disempowering women is making women invisible in the settings in which power is exercised and allocated. That invisibility is about more than just numbers. Having women at the table influences the content and quality of conversations.
During the first GOP debate, Megyn Kelly called Donald Trump out for the sexist comments he has made against women. Maybe a male moderator would have done the same, but the silence of her male counterparts upon Trump’s rebuke of her question spoke volumes. That silence was also telling among Trump’s opponents on the debate stage, none of whom weighed in on the exchange, on gender equality, at any point in the night.
What might have happened if Carly Fiorina, who has spoken repeatedly (and even made a video) about the sexism she’s navigated as a business leader and candidate for office, had been in a position to respond to Kelly’s claims? Would the distinct experience that she brings to the Republican field have changed the dialogue of the debate? Maybe, or maybe not. It’s not solely women’s responsibility to call out sexism. But posing the question about the difference women’s presence and voices make in the places where power is sought and won is a worthy task for all of us so invested in the outcome of this campaign.
What is more interesting than Trump’s behavior is our collective response to it – from the candidates in the race to media, voters, and political analysts and strategists. Many people have done the easy part of denouncing Trump’s comments and the sexism they represent. Now let’s see who’s up for taking on the hard part.