Lessons from past women’s presidential races remain salient for 2016, the first presidential contest featuring prominent women candidates in both major parties. Still front and center: the lack of role models for a woman president; the challenges of raising money; the frequent focus on appearance and image; stereotypes and assumptions that dog even the best-credentialed women.
CAWP director Debbie Walsh and BLFF Executive Director Adrienne Kimmell led a discussion with Ambassador and former Senator Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL) and former Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder (D-CO), who sought the Democratic nomination in 2004 and 1988 respectively. Their observations were echoed by two other expert observers: Kathleen Harrington, deputy campaign manager for Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole’s race for the Republican nomination in 2000, and Leslie Sanchez, a Republican strategist and author of You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Michelle, Sarah, Hillary and the Shaping of the New American Woman.
Schroeder identified barriers that confronted her in 1988 and remain significant for current candidates Hillary Rodham Clinton and Carly Fiorina. Women don’t look “presidential” because no woman has been President; similarly, since no woman has been Secretary of Defense, they are presumed not to be experts on the military, while even men with no military experience are automatically considered knowledgeable on that score. Also missing: a role model for male first spouse that would support the vision of a woman as President.
Braun cited “four C’s” – credentials, character, charisma, and cash – that continue to pose challenges for any presidential candidate, but particularly for women and people of color. A candidate must prove herself in each category, often requiring her to counter stereotypes and cultural norms.
“When we take on those things, what we’re really taking on is not the electoral process but cultural norms,” said Ambassador Braun.
Harrington recalled the focus on Dole’s “hair, hemlines and husband” in lieu of serious media attention to her policy proposals. Then, as now, Harrington said the emphasis for a woman had to be on leveraging her brand, highlighting intelligence, analytical skills and discipline – highlighting a double standard for women. “A woman who is disciplined is scripted, and a man who is disciplined is on message,” Harrington said.
Sanchez noted differences in the approach to gender between Clinton’s campaigns in 2008 and 2016 as evidence of changing times. In 2008, the candidate tried to minimize gender but also assumed women would be with her and was frustrated to discover a generational divide, with older women far more enthusiastic about the idea of a woman president than young women. Today, Clinton uses messages about her status as a mother and grandmother to emphasize gender as an asset and attempt to bring women together — even across party lines.