There are many ways in which the presidential election of 2016 will be remembered as historic and unique. We saw the rise of the first woman nominated by a major political party and we have a Republican with no previous political experience defeating a field of 16 candidates, including governors, Senators, and Representatives, to win the nomination. But, from the perspective of gender politics, one of the most amazing aspects of this campaign is that when we discuss personality traits and “temperament” of the candidates, we do NOT hear the woman candidate being labeled as unfit to be president.
As women candidates have run for office more often in the United States, one of the major challenges they have faced has been to be perceived by the public and political elites as having the “right stuff.” A long line of research has found that the traditional characteristics that people value in leaders are not often associated with women. Voters are attracted to agentic, strong, masculine leaders, who generally tend to be men. Women are often thought to be too soft, too friendly, not forceful enough to be effective leaders, particularly at higher levels of office. The presidency in particular has been an office where masculinity and maleness has been assumed to be the default. Before Hillary Clinton ran for president, we saw the campaigns of women like Elizabeth Dole and Michele Bachmann, both of whom were burdened with stereotypic coverage of their brief candidacies: Dole as demure, soft, ladylike, Bachmann as queen of rage. And Hillary Clinton has often been described as sounding “shrill,” having a “cackle,” and engendering “leg-crossing” fear in men. Certainly women who have run for the presidency have endured their share of criticism of their personal traits.
But since the first presidential debate last week, there has been a clear shift in the conversation about the personality traits of Clinton and Trump and their fitness to be president. Here, for the first time, we see a male candidate’s “temperament” judged negatively. When Trump confidently declared that his temperament was probably his greatest strength as a potential president, the audience at the debate laughed out loud. In critiquing his debate performance, reporters and opinion writers have referred to aspects of his personality and behavioral traits in negative ways not generally associated with male leaders. Clinton, on the other hand, has been described in positive terms that are often seen as “masculine” or male strengths. A quick review of media articles published in the days following the debate reveals Trump described as “angry,” “undisciplined,” “sensitive,” “impulsive,” and being ready to “blow his top.” These same writers called Clinton “measured,” having given a “strong performance,” and demonstrating “command,” and a “sense of humor.” While the sense that Clinton had “won” the debate and Trump did himself no favors was widely accepted outside of strong conservative and Republican circles, what is new and fascinating is the way in which the gender script on personality traits was flipped. Clinton, the woman, was determined to have appeared presidential, while Trump, the man, was widely thought to be anything but. When Trump tried to attack Clinton for not having the stamina to be president, commentators remarked on how he appeared “haggard” and “weaker” than Clinton. Several commentators even referred to the number of times she smiled without framing this as a negative, as too soft or feminine. Instead it was used as an illustration of her ability to stay steady and let Trump’s provocations roll of her back (or shimmy off her shoulders). Media writers and commentators spent several days after the debate talking about Clinton’s strengths in ways that almost seemed easy and obvious. But this conversation is anything but casual and common. For those who study gender politics, hearing a woman candidate described positively in terms usually reserved for men is a surprising, almost astounding, shift in tone.
There is still more to come in this campaign – two more debates, a myriad of campaign events, unknown challenges – and it is certainly possible that Clinton will be evaluated at some point in ways that echo the devaluation of traditionally female characteristics. But her performance in the first debate and the stark contrast in personal styles exhibited by the two candidates may indicate a turning point in the willingness of voters and media commentators to see women’s characteristics as appropriate for high office. This, in and of itself, is a success that has emerged from this atypical campaign season.
Kathleen Dolan is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Her research focuses on gender politics, public opinion, elections, and voting behavior. Dolan is the author of When Does Gender Matter? Women Candidates and Gender Stereotypes in American Elections (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Voting for Women: How the Public Evaluates Women Candidates (Westview Press, 2004). Her work has also appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals and edited books. She has served as co-editor of the journal Politics & Gender and as a member of the board of the American National Election Studies.