The Gender Conversation Continues

In April 2015, we launched Presidential Gender Watch 2016 with the mission to track, analyze, and illuminate gender dynamics in the presidential election. For nineteen months, we did that work with help from expert scholars and practitioners. We raised questions, provided answers, and sought to complicate any simplifications in popular discussions about gender’s role in the presidential race. We were not alone. Multiple media outlets, individual journalists, and political commentators – and even some candidates – grappled with gender in more complex and nuanced ways this year than in elections past. This is not only an intellectual win, but marks institutional progress.

Disrupting the gender status quo of political institutions – one that has long advantaged masculinity and men – requires understanding the many ways in which that status quo is manifested and maintained. There was evidence of that disruption in election 2016, even if the highest, hardest glass ceiling remains intact. But talking about the politics of gender should not end with a woman’s defeat. In fact, these conversations are more important than ever, because election 2016 was – at least in part – a referendum on the re-entrenchment of presidential masculinity. And traditional models of masculinity won.

To ensure that our conversations about gender dynamics in presidential politics continue, we want to re-emphasize the four key points of our analyses, which are central to understanding the role of gender in this year’s campaign.

First, this election underscored what we’ve seen over our collective 65 years of research on women in politics: the standards for women running for executive office are higher. Donald Trump wasn’t the first person to ask whether a woman “looks” like an executive – or whether she has the “stamina” to lead. With women vying for the top of the ticket in both major parties, 2016 provided us with the chance to examine what happens when women run for the nation’s highest office, and confirmed that women candidates still have to clear higher hurdles than men.

For example, Barbara Lee Family Foundation research has shown that voters expect women candidates to be likeable, but are willing to vote for a man who isn’t. Hillary Clinton was constantly plagued by this likeability question, with “Is she likeable enough?” pieces appearing often in press coverage of her campaign. This likeability litmus test isn’t specific to any one candidate: one headline stated “Even a room full of puppies can’t make Carly Fiorina likeable.” However, it is clear that likeability continues to matter more for women than it does for men. In the final days of the election, both candidates had comparable favorability numbers, but likeability was non-negotiable for Clinton, not Trump.

Another double standard affecting women is what happens when they make mistakes. For women, there’s an expectation of purity: voters put women on a pedestal when it comes to morals and honesty. Even a perceived infraction can knock a woman off the ethical pedestal voters place them on. Voters remember and punish women more for mistakes. Because the cost is so high for women candidates, those running against women often make negative attacks on character repeatedly and early. That’s not to say men don’t face these same attacks, but when they get knocked down, the climb back up isn’t nearly as steep. Trump’s campaign made prosecuting Clinton over her private server use a centerpiece of his campaign. “Lock her up” became a rallying cry for some Trump supporters, and “Crooked Hillary” was a mainstay of Trump’s speeches and Twitter feed.

While 2016 illuminated the heightened expectations that persist for women, it also showed us what is now possible for women candidates. We are making progress. For the first time, we saw a woman presidential candidate embrace all of her experiences – professional experience, family experience, volunteer experience- to connect with voters. It wasn’t that long ago (even 2008) that a candidate talking about her experiences as a daughter, a wife, a mother, or a grandmother on the campaign trail was uncommon, and that wasn’t the case in this election.

Of course, critics are quick to reject the idea that Clinton was defeated because she is a woman. They are right in rejecting that claim, but wrong if they believe that means gender did not matter at all. Gender is a piece of a complex electoral puzzle, creating both challenges and opportunities for all candidates alongside many other salient campaign dynamics.

Clinton’s own position on this evolved from 2008 to 2016. Early on her 2016 campaign, she told audiences, “I’m not asking you to vote for me because I’m a woman. I’m asking you to vote for me on the merits.” But, unlike in 2008 – when she repeatedly rejected the idea that she was “running as a woman,” Clinton added, “I think one of those merits is I am a woman.” Gender, in this characterization, is just one among multiple electoral assets she offered to voters, neither the entirety of her case for the presidency nor absent from it. Similarly, addressing gender as an either/or proposition in campaign analyses – it was determinative or not – misses the many ways in which gender matters before Election Day and outside of the voting booth.

Importantly, “gender” does not refer only to women, despite the tendency to assume analyzing gender necessarily means we must focus on the beliefs, behaviors, treatment, or experiences of women. Focusing on women tells only one part of the gender story. Looking through a gender lens requires understanding how gender shapes behaviors, evaluations, and outcomes for women and men. In 2016, that means realizing that all candidates played the gender card, and Trump perhaps most overtly of all in his performance of masculinity. In doing so, he tapped into feelings of “precarious masculinity” among voters, especially men but also women, who felt – as the Atlantic and PRRI found – that men and women should stick to the roles to which they are naturally suited, that society is becoming too soft and feminine, and that men are being punished just for being men. If we ignore that gender mattered in these ways, and only focus our analysis on women, we risk normalizing and perpetuating a gender status quo that not only disproportionately disadvantages women, but also constrains men’s political behavior in ways that retains power in performance of traditional masculinity.

Just as conversations around gender too often assume we are only talking about women, they frequently rely upon singular characterizations of women as voters or candidates, characterizations that ignore the rich diversity among women – ideologically, generationally, and across race and ethnicity, religion, or sexuality – just to name a few.

Take the shock among many that white women didn’t support Clinton, a reaction based upon the false presumption of gender affinity – that women would be more likely to vote for a woman candidate. Aside from the apparent amnesia about white women’s support for Republican nominees in the previous three presidential elections, many observers and pundits missed that Democratic women were just as unlikely to support a Republican ticket with a woman on it in 2008 as Republican women were to vote counter to their party identification for a female-led ticket in 2016. Few people expected Democratic men to vote for Trump this year simply because they share the same chromosomes, so perhaps we shouldn’t apply that logic to women either.

And focusing on white women’s votes misses the very important role that women of color have played in electoral politics. Black women, for example, voted at the highest rates of any race and gender subgroup in 2008 and 2012, proving to be an essential piece of President Obama’s winning coalition. Latinas are among the fastest-rising group of voters in the U.S. These women voters bring distinct political priorities, positions, and perspectives – both between and within groups – that are too often lumped together by strategists, candidates, media and pundits. When freed from the false constraints of assuming singularity over multiplicity, the results of applying a gender lens to what happened in 2016 are broad, deep, and rich.

Gender has not stopped shaping presidential politics because this year’s ballots have been cast, or because the president-elect will be the 45th man to hold the office. Our analysis remains relevant to the conversation we will continue to have into 2017. We hope you’ll join us.