On the Bias 9.7.15

In this On the Bias, we discuss if, when, and where double standards exist for women running for office. From debate rules to evaluations of authenticity, do men and women face the same hurdles? And, what does the masculinity of presidential campaigns mean for men and women’s behavior, treatment, and evaluations?

“Manning up” to Include Women

It was not until 5 days ago that CNN changed their debate rules, in response to campaigns and voters, to better address the current standings in Republican polls. Instead of relying on longer-term poll trends, the new criteria will include in next week’s debate any candidate who ranks in the top 10 in polling between August 7 and September 10. This change was good news to Carly Fiorina, who had publicly criticized CNN and pushed for altering the rules for entry to better accommodate her recent rise in the polls. Some who rallied behind Fiorina raised questions about whether leaving her off of the main debate stage was evidence of gender bias, as the sole female candidate in the Republican race would be sidelined again. However, the formulas put forth by CNN – new and old – leave little room for overt gender bias and work to either the advantage or disadvantage of Fiorina’s male counterparts as well.

The gender story of the debate rules has instead been one of rhetoric, where those discussing Fiorina’s exclusion or inclusion have invoked gendered reasoning or language to make their case. Jennifer Rubin notes the “win-win” Fiorina faced whether she was included or not, arguing that being the only woman would allow her to ostracize the RNC/CNN if left out, but will also cede advantages on a stage of all men if she is included. K.T. McFarland took a more aggressive approach, entitling her Fox News piece “Man up, RNC Chairman Priebus, and let the woman speak.” Interestingly, McFarland relies upon masculinist rhetoric that is so customary to presidential campaigns to make the case for female inclusion. She writes, “Fiorina is coming up fast. The rest of the country is ready for a women president. The Republican Party leadership should be, too. So stop whining and just do your job.” In previous posts, I’ve discussed the demand for candidates – male and female – to “man up” in proving they are tough enough to be commander-in-chief. In this piece, McFarland questions whether or not the GOP is “man enough” to include a woman on the debate stage. Her comments align with other examples from the campaign trail – like when one woman candidate told her opponent to get his “man-pants on” or others told their opponents to “man up” on policy issues throughout their debates.

While the intention of these comments, especially those from McFarland, may be good, the rhetoric only reinforces the masculine norm of U.S. elections. As I wrote in my book, this rhetoric “upholds a gender power imbalance in which candidates’ credentials for office are based on their ability to meet expectations of masculinity” and, moreover, “demonstrate(s) women’s adaptation to a masculine arena instead of their challenge to it.”

Playing the Victim?

Some critics looked to Fiorina’s concerns about being excluded from the main CNN debate as “playing the victim card,” something that women candidates often here if or when they raise questions about equitable treatment. Hillary Clinton has been similarly accused of this, with the criticism assuming (1) that the woman candidate’s claims are gender-based and/or (2) that gender-based inequities are to be expected and overcome if the candidate is good enough to do the job. Men who make complaints about fair treatment may also face gendered criticism, again being told to “man up” and move on. In either case, characterizing candidates as playing victims often associates femininity with weakness and paints them as disempowered and unable to handle the tough realities of political campaigns. Too infrequently are questions raised about why those tough realities persist and whether or not they present a level playing field to all candidates who must navigate them.

The Politics of Pillow Talk

Last week, Donald Trump shifted his attack from Hillary Clinton to her top aide, Huma Abedin. Speaking in Massachusetts, he warned a crowd of supporters, “Think about it. So Huma is getting classified secrets. She’s married to Anthony Weiner, who is a pervert. He is. So these are confidential documents. …If you think that Huma isn’t telling Anthony—who she is probably desperately in love with, in all fairness to Anthony, because why else would she marry this guy? Can you believe it? She can’t see straight. Think of it.” Trump’s comments, raising particular ire from the Clinton camp and Clinton herself, demonstrate yet another double standard for women. First, Trump equates sharing a bed with sharing state secrets for a female aide like Abedin, but apparently not for any other spouse of a powerful politician or staffer (by his logic, wouldn’t all spouses of State Department employees need security clearance?). Next, Trump claims that Abedin is so “desperately” in love that she “can’t see straight,” evoking the oldest tropes of female irrationality to argue that an enamored woman is unreliable, untrustworthy, and incapable of doing a serious job. In evaluating the gendered nature of these attacks, it’s important to ask whether or not they would have been waged on a man in similar circumstances and, even more importantly, using the same rhetoric that claims a national security risk of being guided by love.

Evaluating Authenticity

Measuring a double standard by asking whether similarly-situated men would be treated in the same way is what Nina Burleigh attempts in her critical piece in Newsweek, where she argues that body language evaluations (yes, plural) of Hillary Clinton in Business Insider and Reuters are evidence of the scrutiny under which we evaluate women’s – versus men’s – authenticity. She writes, “We haven’t seen body language experts sicced on the men in these campaigns so far, to assess their unspoken anxiety and discombobulation. That’s maybe because when men speak, people listen to what they say, as opposed to studying how their bodies move when they say it.” Burleigh’s piece moves beyond criticism of covering a candidate’s physicality to raising questions about whether or not men and women candidates face different hurdles in their pursuit of authenticity. For male candidates, being authentically male means meeting masculine expectations that are most associated with candidates and officeholders. For women running, authenticity is less straight-forward; it is assumed that women, as political outsiders, have to “act” the part of candidate and officeholder in order to meet both the masculine credentials for the job and the feminine credentials of being a “real” woman.

Burleigh’s critique is a fair one, though more information is needed to determine whether or not the bar really is higher for women in 2016 on this measure. Some questions we might all consider as the race moves forward include: Under what circumstances is men’s authenticity questioned or granted? Do women face higher, or just different, hurdles to being perceived as authentic candidates? What does authenticity mean for men and women running for office, both in definition and in impact on voter behavior? As long as candidate authenticity remains such an important indicator of voter support, understanding how candidates earn and portray it is essential to any analyses of the race.