When Mitch McConnell told a Kentucky audience that “the gender card alone is not enough” for Hillary Clinton to be elected president, he ignited a debate about (1) what the “gender card” is and (2) how you “play” it. Clinton’s response redefined the concept from McConnell’s narrow claims that it means “arguing ‘vote for me because I’m a woman.’” In her positions and policy-based definition, Republicans play the gender card by promoting policies that work to women’s disadvantage, while Clinton and her colleagues “[fight] for politics that help families get ahead.” But neither definition gets to the heart of gender dynamics in our political institutions and campaigns.
In reality, all candidates “play the gender card” in the ways in which they navigate gender norms and expectations in today’s campaigns. 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. Whether by emphasizing their roles as paternal protectors, displaying toughness and strength, or proving their “manliness” in campaign activities and photo-ops, candidates have long engaged in the business of gender performance to meet the masculine credentials of executive office.
The staging of 2016 candidates’ presidential announcements (see photo collage above) offers plentiful evidence. The image of each male candidate surrounded by his family communicates multiple credentials for candidacy, from family values to his role as patriarch and protector. Female spouses and children reflect the masculinity of a male leader, reminding us that he can lead the country as he leads his family. In contrast, seeing women candidates’ families cues gender role expectations and risks raising questions about their independence from male spouses or capacity to be both candidate and caregiver. Of note this cycle, Hillary Clinton’s family did not appear with her until two months after her announcement, and Carly Fiorina has yet to bring her family on the campaign trail.
Candidates do not communicate masculinity solely through familial roles. Rand Paul’s new campaign video presents his opposition to the tax code by showing him engaged in the “manly” task of taking a chainsaw to it. This isn’t the first time Paul’s “manliness” has been raised as a credential for office; America’s Liberty PAC produced a pro-Paul video in May where a shirtless “Rand Man” was characterized as the “Defender of Freedom” needed to move our country forward. And Donald Trump has previously made the case that his promiscuity is proof of the virility required of public officeholders, although he has yet to raise it in this campaign.
Women candidates also work to prove they’re tough enough for the job, albeit less overtly. Hillary Clinton focused much more on her masculine credentials in 2008, when being “ready to lead on day one” meant having the “testicular fortitude” to take on tough challenges. But Clinton has not ceded those credentials in 2016, using one of her first web videos to demonstrate her unwillingness to back down from a fight.
As men and women candidates “play the gender card” to meet masculine expectations, another gender card is often played against them that devalues characteristics and qualifications deemed too feminine for the nation’s commander in chief. Take the recent New Yorker satire of male candidates Chris Christie and Marco Rubio’s “sleepover” at Mitt Romney’s estate last month, where the men are painted as tween girls engaged in pillow fights and talking about boys. Disparaging “girliness” in male candidates is just as gendered as maligning Clinton’s focus on girl-power. When Clinton focuses on policy issues most important to women or on women’s lived experiences as mainstream considerations in her campaign, critics argue she’s running “on her gender” instead of on substance, reducing “her gender” and the concerns among members of it to special interests instead of individuals and issues worthy of equal consideration in a nationwide campaign.
Candidates and columnists can and should consider the gendered motivations and machinations of campaign strategies and communications, but that means expanding their understanding of what constitutes gender and the performance (or “playing”) of it. Often, that also means pushing against claims that we live in a gender neutral world, as Bill O’Reilly argued in a recent interview with, ironically enough, Carly Fiorina. The desire for gender neutrality blinds us to the ways in which gender continues to shape social institutions, including politics, and the demands it places on men and women who navigate them. When we accept that reality, we see that we’re all playing the gender card – what matters is whether or not we do so in ways that maintain or disrupt the status quo. In today’s campaigns, asking how rather than whether candidates play the gender card will be much more enlightening to understanding the degree to which politics remains a man’s world.