One year ago, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation launched Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a nonpartisan project to track, analyze, and illuminate gender dynamics in the 2016 presidential election. The goal of the project was – and remains – to lend expert analysis to the dialogue around gender throughout the election season. While that includes recognition of the historic nature of having women competing for both major party nominations for president, it goes well beyond talking about the women in the race. Importantly, it means reminding all election observers – media, scholars, practitioners, and voters alike – that gender does not mean women and that gender dynamics are not limited to instances of sexism, whether explicit or implicit. A truer gender dialogue means recognizing the myriad and complex ways in which gender shapes candidate behavior, voter engagement and evaluations, and media coverage and commentary.
We’ve done a lot of work to these ends over the past year, and have been joined by scholars and practitioners who have been generous in lending their support and expertise. We’re also grateful to journalists and commentators who appreciate the diversity of gender dynamics in the presidential election and have used their platforms to engage even larger audiences in this conversation.
With just over 200 days until Election Day, it’s worth taking stock of what we’ve been up to. Here are some lessons learned and shared that are worthy of review:
(1) Every presidential candidate – man or woman – plays the gender card. They just do it differently.
Last August, after Mitch McConnell argued that the “gender card alone is not enough” for Hillary Clinton to win the presidency, I argued, “all candidates ‘play the gender card’ in the ways in which they navigate gender norms and expectations in today’s campaigns.” I added, “For most of American history, that has meant that presidential candidates – male and female – have worked to prove they are ‘man enough’ for the job.” That performance of masculinity has been most apparent in the GOP race, where all candidates have engaged in tough talk and men have repeatedly described their roles as masculine protectors. For example, we wrote about the protectionist rhetoric inherent in a debate discussion over Syrian refugees, where moderator and candidates alike falsely described refugees as primarily male and a risk to vulnerable women. Donald Trump has repeatedly described himself as a protector of women (most recently last week), apparently taking some early advice from his daughter Ivanka to “let people know how much you adore women and how you’ll take care of them.”
Male candidates are not alone in performing masculinity; female presidential candidates also work hard to meet the masculine credentials expected of a commander-in-chief. They are equally capable of reinforcing gender norms in presidential campaigns, as some women have done when they remind political men to “man up.”
Another way that candidates elevate and empower masculinity is to devalue traits, experiences, or expertise associated with femininity. We have written about the politics of emasculation evident in this race, which has deep roots in electoral campaigning. This spring, the Trump-Rubio fights over size and stamina were among the most blatant attempts at emasculation. But these are not the only culprits or targets. Multiple Republican candidates denounced President Obama’s weakness, using language that simultaneously infantilized and emasculated him. Commentators have also weighed in, like when Rich Lowry claimed that Carly Fiorina “cut [Trump’s] balls off” at a September GOP debate. When candidates or commentators question women candidates’ toughness, stamina, or emotional stability to be president, they play into the same stereotypical expectations that maintain masculine ideals and associate femininity – and women – with weakness and, thus, inadequacy for being president.
Playing the gender card, then, means much more than talking about being a woman or targeting women voters. Recognizing the range of gender performance, and the ways in which candidates adhere to or disrupt gender expectations, provides a much richer analysis of gender in the presidential race. Of course, this type of analysis rejects the idea that gender “happens” to anyone, like when some have talked about Clinton or Fiorina as candidates who just “happen” to be women. Gender matters for women and men candidates, not only in what they bring to and experience in the campaign, but also in how they campaign and the ways in which they are perceived by election observers.
(2) Every presidential candidate – man or woman – faces gendered expectations. But there are some significant differences between men and women who run.
The valuation of masculinity is particularly acute at the presidential level, in part because of the gender demands of being commander-in-chief. Those demands are rooted in persistent gendered expectations of who can and should lead the nation. We’ve written extensively about the ways in which stereotypes of gender and candidacy are more likely to align for men, while women candidates for executive office often confront double binds in appearing masculine enough for the job and feminine enough to meet stereotypical expectations of being a woman. Our partners at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation have researched these hurdles, and have written about how they’ve influenced the women in the 2016 race. Questions of Clinton’s likability matter more because she is a woman candidate, they remind us, because likability is tied to perceptions of qualifications for office for women, but not for men. They also note the double standard in candidate language, identifying how candidates’ foul language might communicate passion or authenticity for men while posing greater risks to women. That demand for authenticity also poses distinct challenges to women candidates when being an authentic candidate is – at least in part – opposed to being authentically female.
The gender expectations we hold as observers of American politics do not apply only to candidates. We’ve written about the gender expectations of the presidential partnership, whereby candidate spouses have long been expected to fit into helpmate roles associated with traditional norms of femininity. Moderator Martha Raddatz was criticized after she asked Hillary Clinton about whether or not it was time to change the role of a president’s spouse at a December debate. We took a more nuanced position on the question Raddatz posed, arguing that examining (and addressing) the gender constraints placed on presidential spouses is a conversation worth having, but not at the Democratic debate and, more importantly, not only when we’re faced with a potential first gentleman.
We’ve also written about the particular challenges women candidates face when confronting spousal ideals. When Carly Fiorina criticized whether or not Hillary Clinton was a good wife, she prompted us to ask a question: how do women address the stereotypical expectations of the ideal spouse, whereby the wife is still tasked with reflecting and bolstering the power of a male partner instead of fully embracing or expressing her own, while still proving she is ready to be Commander in Chief?
How might candidates navigate these gender hurdles? We’ve relied on practitioners to weigh in with tips, like communications expert Chris Jahnke’s recommendations on how to deal with gender in presidential debates. Consultant Jessica Grounds also wrote convincingly of the need for gender advisors in political campaigns, men and women who are keenly aware of the gender dynamics at play for all candidates.
(3) Presidential politics are not free of gender bias, and this election provides examples of both persistence and progress.
In one of the first posts to our site, political consultant Mary Hughes wrote, “In the 2016 elections we will have an opportunity to discuss our biases, examine language that diminishes candidacies and question traditions that may disadvantage contenders.” We dedicated a whole section of our site – On the Bias – to monitoring these examples of gender bias in the presidential race, not only by media, but also among candidates and voters.
This gender awareness is important because campaigns are not waged – or won – on gender-neutral terrain. While our archive of polls finds very few voters who say they would not vote for a woman for a president, there remains evidence of gender bias against female presidential candidates. In August 2015, we spoke with women who have run for president about what they experienced on the campaign trail, and many noted similar biases facing women running today. Those biases are often, though not only, found in media, as Dr. Dianne Bystrom wrote about as we launched this project. Despite comedian Cecily Strong’s plea to journalists at last April’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner to swear “not to talk about Hillary’s appearance,” we have seen ample attention to Hillary Clinton’s hair, Carly Fiorina’s face (from media and fellow candidates), and both women’s attractiveness.
While seemingly trivial, this type of coverage is also tied to sexuality – a media frame to which men are not immune. Recall when CNN’s Dana Bash asked Lindsay Graham to play date/marry/kill with women presidential contenders, sexualizing the women while also playing into questions about Graham’s own sexuality as a single man, or when Washington Post writer Paul Schwartzman made the case that Martin O’Malley may have commanded one category of the 2016 campaign: the swimsuit competition. These cases remind us that male candidates are also subject to sexism, including attention to their appearance. But that appearance coverage is often different for men in content, effect, and frame, like when media spent ample time analyzing Marco Rubio’s heeled boots as too feminine for a manly candidate for president.
Like others in the media, we have also paid attention to the gender differences in how we interpret certain behaviors by women and men. We’ve talked about why Bernie Sanders’ finger-wagging matters and asked why his “shouting” doesn’t face the same scrutiny as the volume or tone of Clinton’s voice (see more on women’s voices here and here). Clinton has also been accused of “lecturing” her male competitors (something we tie to evidence of mother transference among men in the race), while accusations of Fiorina’s interruptions in GOP debates are worth analysis through a gender lens. More significantly, we’ve talked about our cultural discomfort with ambitious women, citing Jeb Bush’s criticism of Clinton’s ambition last December – well before Sanders’ campaign manager’s recent comments.
Similarly, while some deemed Sanders’ recent comments about Clinton’s qualifications as sexist, he was not the first to mine veins of women’s qualifications to be president. Last August, we wrote about the DNC’s gendered attacks on Fiorina’s experience, as well as GOP candidates’ claims that Clinton offered no qualifications to be commander-in-chief. This theme was evident as early as May 2015, when we wrote about the need for women candidates to meet higher standards to prove they are ready for presidential office.
Importantly, Dr. Kathleen Dolan provides evidence from her research that this anecdotal evidence of gender bias may not hurt women candidates at the ballot box; at least in congressional contests, voters’ gender stereotypes have little effect on their willingness to support women candidates. However, Dr. Melanye Price highlights the more implicit ways in which gender bias might shape voter evaluations at the presidential level, providing a useful test for PGW readers to determine if they are engaged in “aversive sexism” against Hillary Clinton.
We have also written about effective and ineffective ways to combat gender bias on the campaign trail, including attention to the role that women journalists and women’s media plays in altering the ways in and extent to which gender dynamics are covered in 2016 (which Rush Limbaugh has criticized as the “chickification” of election news). Those women, Megyn Kelly most notably among them, have also been subject to sexism and bias from candidates and voters alike. The role of women in media is worthy of additional analysis once this race ends, raising questions about whether women’s voices were any more prominent in this year’s coverage than prior presidential contests and if there were any differences in the gender content (or biases) of analyses by men and women covering the race.
(4) Win or lose, this year’s women candidates made history in multiple ways…and that’s worth celebrating.
Amidst our efforts to emphasize the way in which gender matters for women and men engaged in presidential politics, we have not ignored the historic significance of women’s candidacies in 2016. Our very first post analyzed the 143 years in which women have run for president, as we also illustrated in our interactive timeline. When two women emerged as presidential contenders, we noted that this would be the first presidential campaign with women competing for both major parties’ nominations. Here’s some more historical context: from 1972 to 2012, 139 men and just 5 women competed in major party primaries for president. In 2016, Clinton and Fiorina added two more women to that list.
Of course, our celebration of these two women was a tempered one, as we watched 21 men throw their hats in the ring (and asked, “Why not another woman?”). The dominance of male contenders (and officeholders) plays into the gendered language we use in presidential contests, something student Colin Sheehan emphasized in his analysis of how and why pronouns matter when we talk about the presidency.
Altering that language requires recognizing women as real, viable presidential contenders. In 2016, few have questioned Hillary Clinton’s viability. Interestingly, that has led to relatively minimal attention to her historic achievements as the first (and only) woman to win presidential primaries in 33 states and territories (10 in 2016 thus far), including her win in the nation’s first contest in Iowa this year.
Beyond altering the image and language of the American presidency, women candidates also have the potential to disrupt the tactics and content of campaigns. In October 2015, we asked what difference it made to have two women in the race and noted one particular effect: we’re talking about feminism. Of course, the ways in which candidates talked about feminism varied. Carly Fiorina’s feminism included confronting the sexism she faced on the campaign trail, as we noted after she took on the ladies of The View. But Fiorina’s feminism was also hard to pin down, as she struggled with how to use, address, or embrace her gender throughout her presidential campaign. When she conceded, we wrote about this dissonance as evidence of both confusion and constraint.
Clinton’s campaign has faced fewer constraints in embracing gender as an electoral asset. She has described gender among the merits she would bring to the presidency, and has mainstreamed gender in her policy agenda and political rhetoric. While still subject to gendered expectations that privilege masculinity in the Oval Office, Clinton’s strategy in 2016 challenges some established rules of the game to expand the issues, expertise, experiences, and traits expected of presidential candidates. Her candidacy might disrupt our associations of presidential success with proving manliness so that presidential power can also derive from being a woman.
(5) Women voters are not a monolithic bloc. (Neither are men.)
In candidate-centered elections like ours, it’s easy to ignore the ways in which gender permeates other aspects of – and actors in – the presidential campaign. We are committed to paying particular attention to gender differences among voters, tracking gender gaps in presidential polling for the primary and general elections. We’ve also analyzed gender differences in primary exit polls to date, demonstrating, for example, the importance of women to Clinton’s success in Democratic contests thus far. But the gendered dimensions of Clinton’s success is oversimplified if women voters are discussed as a monolithic bloc.
In a February 2016 conference call with experts, we challenged this notion and detailed the complexities among women voters, particularly along ideological and racial/ethnic lines. That call built on written analyses from PGW guest experts like Dr. Melissa Deckman, who wrote about Donald Trump’s support among Tea Party women. When we launched Presidential Gender Watch, Higher Heights’ co-founders Glynda Carr and Kimberly Peeler Allen highlighted the power of Black women’s votes in presidential politics, something that we have further confirmed in analyses of Black women voters’ influence in the Democratic primaries to date. Likewise, Dr. Anna Sampaio wrote about the distinct demands of Latina voters in this election, and Dr. Christina Bejarano analyzed the importance of candidates’ racial identity and appeals to Latina voters.
This diversity among women is tied to differences in policy priorities and positions. Those policy and partisan differences are much more likely to shape candidate preference than is candidate gender, despite claims of “vagina voters” in 2016. Of course, the question of whether women do, or should, vote for women because they are women has been the subject of much debate since the start of this race. Adrienne Kimmell weighed in on the problematic frames often employed in these conversations, writing, “Arguing that gender is one of the merits on which candidates may be evaluated does not promote identity over merit; instead, it presumes there is merit in identity.” This analysis evidences the nuance of gender PGW seeks to illuminate in all aspects of the 2016 race, complicating questions, claims, and conclusions that otherwise simplify or overlook the gendered dimensions of today’s presidential politics.
We look forward to continuing these complex conversations about gender and the 2016 race and hope that you will join us. Be sure to sign up for our newsletter, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and monitor our daily news updates and expert analyses on the PGW website.