On the Bias 8.21.15

This week’s On the Bias highlights missed points, masculine norms, and the gender dynamics of vice presidential discussions.

Missing the Point

One of the goals of Presidential Gender Watch is to dig deeper into our public dialogue about gender in the 2016 race. In the past two weeks, there have been some useful illustrations of where the candidates themselves could have dug deeper in thinking critically about the gender dynamics at play for them and their opponents.

At a rally in New Hampshire, Donald Trump referred to accusations of sexism against him by exaggerating their content and implications. As he began to criticize opponent Carly Fiorina’s attacks on him, Trump carped, “But I can’t say anything to her because she’s a woman and I don’t want to be accused of being tough on women. I can’t do that. Can I do that? Women – am I allowed to fight back? Am I allowed?” Trump’s comments represent a familiar line of defense against allegations of sexism, painting them as irrational and extreme and turning the tables to paint the accused, instead of accuser, as the wronged party. By equating arguments that he should refrain from calling women “pigs, dogs, and slobs,” or criticize them on their merits rather than their hormones, with the notion that women demand special treatment, Trump – and others like him – miss the point entirely. Their perception that fair treatment is special treatment of women proves the underlying gender inequality of the social system. Research on campaign strategy has proven repeatedly that all candidates – men or women – can attack each other with little penalty to their own candidacy, as long as the content and style of those attacks are deemed fair by voters. Attacks deemed unfair are most often those perceived as personal, including those that demean a candidate on gendered terms instead of on the substance of their candidacy. So, yes, Trump is “allowed” to fight back when attacked by an opponent – male or female, but it is the way in which he fights back, and the rhetoric he uses, that matters.

Bernie Sanders also overlooked the significance of distinctly gendered realities for men and women candidates when he criticized Ana Maria Cox’s question about media attention to Hillary Clinton’s hair in the New York Times Magazine. Sanders claimed that Cox’s question lacked seriousness, but her question – and its implications – are very serious to women navigating gendered political terrain. Research shows that female candidates for office are often subject to greater scrutiny of style over substance than men, and that scrutiny hurts them in evaluations of their favorability and qualifications to lead. Men do not pay the same price for appearance coverage and can more easily write it off as unimportant, as Sanders did. So while Sanders ultimately agreed that the disparate attention paid to women’s hair is “absolutely wrong,” he missed the point (at least initially) of Cox’s question – to illuminate and problematize the gender dynamics at play in this presidential campaign.

Taking Care of Women

Melinda Henneberger’s Bloomberg piece highlights Trump’s recent interview with Sean Hannity, where he emphasized his daughter Ivanka’s influence on his approach to women voters. Trump explains how Ivanka told him, “Dad, you’ve got to let people know how much you adore women and how you’ll take care of them.” Henneberger responds, “To cherish, to adore, to take care of? Those sound more like wedding vows than campaign promises.” She’s right, but Trump’s remarks symbolize more than a marriage; they reify the role of president as both patriarch and masculine protector. As scholar Iris Marion Young has explained, emphasizing political leaders’ ability to protect the people they are elected to serve, “puts those protected, paradigmatically women and children, in a subordinate position of dependence and obedience.” Thus, while Ivanka Trump’s proposed message to women was meant to restore her father’s image among them, the power differential it implies does little to disrupt the patriarchal tone that candidate Trump’s earlier comments had revealed. It seems that the empowerment of women, instead of the adoration of them, will go a longer way in amassing women’s support, and that empowerment is less about taking care of them than presenting a plan to ensure they can take care of themselves.

Playing the Gender Card

The conservative British magazine The Spectator published an editorial this week comparing Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s campaign strategies, asking, “Is there not some similarity between Clinton claiming that women should allow their genitalia to control their vote and Trump suggesting that periods define a woman’s mood?” Writer Ella Whelan adds, “So what if Trump thinks women get ratty around their time of the month? What is far more insulting is the idea that women should rally behind an old crocodile like Clinton just because we all wear bras.” Whelan’s rhetoric is not new, as others have characterized Clinton’s strategy as trying to win over “vagina voters” or claiming that “Hillary Clinton Would Like You to Vote for Her Ovaries.” The notion that women candidates may appeal to women voters on the basis of shared identity is more complicated, however. We know that women do not simply vote for women; in fact, party trumps gender in women voters’ behavior. But shared identity cannot be entirely separated from shared experiences that inform shared priorities among women.

Those shared priorities (or at least her perception of them) appear to be at the root of Hillary Clinton’s message, not the simplistic notion that women should vote for the woman candidate. At the Iowa Democratic Ding Wing, she told the audience, “I am so tired of politicians shaming and blaming women. I am tired of Republicans dismissing the contributions women make to our economy and ignoring the obstacles that hold so many back from contributing even more. We cannot afford to leave talent on the sidelines. Women who want to work should be able to do so without worrying every day about how they’re going to take care of their child or what happens when a family member gets sick. That is not a luxury, it’s a necessity, and it’s also an economic growth strategy.” She also took on claims that she was “playing the gender card,” refining a talking point she is likely to repeat on the stump: “Well, if calling for equal pay and paid leave is playing the gender card, then deal me in. Let me add, if helping more working parents find quality, affordable childcare is playing the gender card, then I’m ready to ante up.” Clinton’s rebuttal contends the claim that talking to or about women is simply a strategic ploy, but let’s also remember that everyone in this race is playing the gender card – the question is how.

A Supporting Role?

Ever since her entry into the race, Carly Fiorina has faced questions about whether or not she was really running for vice president, launching a bid to position herself as the Republican nominee’s number two. Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteran has argued that those questions are sexist, undermining the seriousness of Fiorina’s candidacy to be the first woman president. Fiorina, too, has responded forcefully, reminding reporters, “What I know is that I am running for President. What I know is that I can do this job.” But Fiorina is not the only candidate in a pool of 17 contenders being asked about their willingness (or even incentive) to play a supporting role for candidates perceived as more likely to be the Republican nominee (see similar questions raised about John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Martin O’Malley, to name a few). Her position in the polls only confirms the steep climb she has to reach number one.

So is asking Fiorina the VP question sexist? Maybe not. But there is certainly merit in noting why women may be particularly sensitive to it. Traditional gender roles assume male dominance and female subordinance in private, and even public, partnerships. In presidential politics, the dominant image of male leaders and female “helpmates” – especially evident in the role of spouses – has made it difficult for us to imagine a woman in the West Wing. Finally, until 2008, no women who had run for president had been taken seriously, combatting claims that their bids were simply symbolic. Culture and history create the conditions under which Carly Fiorina and Hillary Clinton are running, but also act as hurdles that women candidates have to overcome. So, when Trump says he would be “all for the concept of a woman vice president,” Bush notes how gender will be important in his VP selection, and Walker names the Fiorina or Carson (the woman candidate and the Black candidate) among his top choices for vice president, it’s not irrational for Fiorina or her supporters to reaffirm her credentials to be the chief executive and reject the ease with which we often relegate women into supporting roles for men.