Juliette Kayyem: National Security and Gender in the 2016 Race

On a Presidential Gender Watch call earlier this year (Women Voters: It’s Complicated), Republican pollster Christine Matthews noted that terrorism and national security are top issues for Republican women in the 2016 election. “Republican women are very unnerved in the current environment, and they are looking for candidates with tough rhetoric,” said Matthews. As the post-election analysis continues, it is clear that national security issues were a driving force at the ballot box.

To continue the discussion on the intersection of national security and gender, Presidential Gender Watch asked Juliette Kayyem for her thoughts. Kayyem is currently the Belfer Lecturer in International Security at Harvard Kennedy School and an on-air security analyst for CNN. She is also the founder of Kayyem Solutions LLC, which provides strategic advice in technology, risk management, mega-event planning and cybersecurity, and the author of Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.

When it comes to national security, do you notice any differences in how male and female candidates approach the issue?

This is a difficult question because, in many elections, the female candidate tends to be a Democrat while the male candidate is a Republican. So, looking at the presidential race, what we saw was Donald Trump essentially taking the security narrative away from Hillary Clinton by focusing on two issues that galvanized his base and even lured many woman (in particular white suburban woman, also known as the “Security Moms”) to his side: immigration and terrorism. Both issues were defined by Trump as ones in which evil things and/or people were seeping into our country and taking our lives, jobs, and communities. For a while, Trump even modified his slogan to “Make America Safe Again.” Clinton, a foreign policy expert, understood the nuances of safety and security but could never own that issue, especially in light of a 2016 filled with terror attacks.

I worry that female candidates too often revert to traditionally female issues — the home, family, children, health — and the public policy choices around those issues. A new generation of women, many of whom served in the military, are changing that but until women feel as confident on these issues — and can actually feel the fear that so many often feel — male candidates will too often make strength and toughness a defining feature in their campaigns.

Do you see any differences in how voters respond to a male candidate talking about national security versus a female candidate speaking about the same subject?

A lot of organizations promoting female candidates do not spend enough time training and discussing these important issues — tough questions from surveillance to interrogations to deportations. I think it leaves female candidates at a disadvantage about an issue that female voters certainly care about. From most polling, it appears Clinton lost the white female vote because those same women placed terrorism and national security as a primary issue.

We saw early in the 2016 presidential campaign that a chief concern among Republican women voters was security. How do you think we saw that influence what happened during this election cycle?

From much of the data, it appears that terrorism and immigration were the motivating factors for Trump voters, and a vast majority viewed them as the most important issue facing the country. This notion is contrary to the already forming conventional wisdom that this was an election about the economy. It was, in part, but my worry is that Democrats and female candidates will view that conventional wisdom as a sign that their messaging has to get more progressive and less security focused. I think it is the exact opposite. My most recent book, Security Mom, is a memoir of my life in homeland security and raising three kids but it is also a call to action for women: that safety and security is not a man’s province.

This election was unprecedented in many ways, including the fact that the candidate with the most experience in national security and foreign policy was the woman in the race. That candidate also lost. What, if anything, does that tell us about how voters define security in today’s world?

The story of what happened in this election will be written a 100 different ways and all of them will be true. I believe gender and sexism had a significant role in this campaign (including the public’s willingness to forgive sexual assault, which is a form of sexism) and set currents against Clinton that she could not eventually overcome. But, looking at her campaign’s role in an explanation, Clinton did not, in the last months, have an aggressive message about security, terror, or immigration. She ceded the very space that she is toughest on. I think that is a lesson for female candidates: own the challenges for the homeland as much as they own the challenges for the home.


juliette-1Juliette Kayyem has spent over 15 years managing complex policy initiatives and organizing government responses to major crises in both state and federal government. She is the founder of Kayyem Solutions, LLC, providing strategic advice in technology, risk management, mega-event planning and cybersecurity, and is currently the Belfer Lecturer in International Security at Harvard Kennedy School and an on-air security analyst for CNN. She also hosts a regular podcast entitled The SCIF for WGBH, Boston’s local NPR station, and her newest book, Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home, was published in 2016.

Most recently, she was President Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. There she played a pivotal role in major operations including handling of the H1N1 pandemic and the BP Oil Spill response; she also organized major policy efforts in immigration reform and community resiliency. Before that, she was Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick’s homeland security advisor guiding regional planning and the state’s first interoperability plan, and overseeing the National Guard.

She has served as a member of the National Commission on Terrorism, a legal advisor to US Attorney General Janet Reno, and a trial attorney and counselor in the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. She is the recipient of many government honors, including the Distinguished Public Service Award, the Coast Guard’s highest medal awarded to a civilian. In 2013, she was named the Pulitzer Prize finalist for editorial columns in the Boston Globe focused on ending the Pentagon’s combat exclusion rule against women, a policy that was changed that year.