One year ago, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation launched Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a nonpartisan project to track, analyze, and illuminate gender dynamics in the 2016 presidential election. The goal of the project was – and remains – to lend expert analysis to the dialogue around gender throughout the election season. With just over 200 days until Election Day, it’s worth taking stock of what we’ve been up to. Over the next week, we will post 5 key lessons learned. Today, we review lesson number three: Presidential politics are not free of gender bias, and this election provides examples of both persistence and progress. (See hyperlinks for full analyses written over the past year.)
In one of the first posts to our site, political consultant Mary Hughes wrote, “In the 2016 elections we will have an opportunity to discuss our biases, examine language that diminishes candidacies and question traditions that may disadvantage contenders.” We dedicated a whole section of our site – On the Bias – to monitoring these examples of gender bias in the presidential race, not only by media, but also among candidates and voters.
This gender awareness is important because campaigns are not waged – or won – on gender-neutral terrain. While our archive of polls finds very few voters who say they would not vote for a woman for a president, there remains evidence of gender bias against female presidential candidates. In August 2015, we spoke with women who have run for president about what they experienced on the campaign trail, and many noted similar biases facing women running today. Those biases are often, though not only, found in media, as Dr. Dianne Bystrom wrote about as we launched this project. Despite comedian Cecily Strong’s plea to journalists at last April’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner to swear “not to talk about Hillary’s appearance,” we have seen ample attention to Hillary Clinton’s hair, Carly Fiorina’s face (from media and fellow candidates), and both women’s attractiveness.
While seemingly trivial, this type of coverage is also tied to sexuality – a media frame to which men are not immune. Recall when CNN’s Dana Bash asked Lindsay Graham to play date/marry/kill with women presidential contenders, sexualizing the women while also playing into questions about Graham’s own sexuality as a single man, or when Washington Post writer Paul Schwartzman made the case that Martin O’Malley may have commanded one category of the 2016 campaign: the swimsuit competition. These cases remind us that male candidates are also subject to sexism, including attention to their appearance. But that appearance coverage is often different for men in content, effect, and frame, like when media spent ample time analyzing Marco Rubio’s heeled boots as too feminine for a manly candidate for president.
Like others in the media, we have also paid attention to the gender differences in how we interpret certain behaviors by women and men. We’ve talked about why Bernie Sanders’ finger-wagging matters and asked why his “shouting” doesn’t face the same scrutiny as the volume or tone of Clinton’s voice (see more on women’s voices here and here). Clinton has also been accused of “lecturing” her male competitors (something we tie to evidence of mother transference among men in the race), while accusations of Fiorina’s interruptions in GOP debates are worth analysis through a gender lens. More significantly, we’ve talked about our cultural discomfort with ambitious women, citing Jeb Bush’s criticism of Clinton’s ambition last December – well before Sanders’ campaign manager’s recent comments.
Similarly, while some deemed Sanders’ recent comments about Clinton’s qualifications as sexist, he was not the first to mine veins of women’s qualifications to be president. Last August, we wrote about the DNC’s gendered attacks on Fiorina’s experience, as well as GOP candidates’ claims that Clinton offered no qualifications to be commander-in-chief. This theme was evident as early as May 2015, when we wrote about the need for women candidates to meet higher standards to prove they are ready for presidential office.
Importantly, Dr. Kathleen Dolan provides evidence from her research that this anecdotal evidence of gender bias may not hurt women candidates at the ballot box; at least in congressional contests, voters’ gender stereotypes have little effect on their willingness to support women candidates. However, Dr. Melanye Price highlights the more implicit ways in which gender bias might shape voter evaluations at the presidential level, providing a useful test for PGW readers to determine if they are engaged in “aversive sexism” against Hillary Clinton.
We have also written about effective and ineffective ways to combat gender bias on the campaign trail, including attention to the role that women journalists and women’s media plays in altering the ways in and extent to which gender dynamics are covered in 2016 (which Rush Limbaugh has criticized as the “chickification” of election news). Those women, Megyn Kelly most notably among them, have also been subject to sexism and bias from candidates and voters alike. The role of women in media is worthy of additional analysis once this race ends, raising questions about whether women’s voices were any more prominent in this year’s coverage than prior presidential contests and if there were any differences in the gender content (or biases) of analyses by men and women covering the race.