In this installment of On the Bias, I discuss the gendered dimensions of displaying authenticity in political campaigns, noting the questions raised in recent coverage and ways in which candidates seek to meet expectations of both candidacy and gender. I also return to the discussion of Hillary Clinton’s age, a topic she addressed most directly in her recent campaign rally, to consider the ways in which Clinton’s seniority might help instead of hinder her candidacy.
Advantage of Aging?
Much has been written about Hillary Clinton’s age in this election cycle, with early analyses raising questions about the pros and cons of her maturity and others wondering what it would mean to have a grandmother in the White House. Caution against ageism was raised quickly, with many noting the double standard often applied to aging women versus older men. (The oldest president elected to date, Ronald Reagan, referenced his age as a clear advantage, promising, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”) Clinton even addressed her age directly in her first major campaign speech when she told the crowd on Roosevelt Island, “I might not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States and the first grandmother as well.”
Recent coverage of Clinton’s age has taken a similarly positive turn, citing her seniority as an advantage. Noting the “high competence threshold” that women candidates face, Chloe Angyal (Reuters) argues that a younger Hillary Clinton “may never have had a chance” to win a bid for president. She rightly notes of women in leadership: “When it comes to leadership positions, women always seem to be held to a higher standard than men, and by the time they’ve accumulated the experience to meet that standard, they’re old enough to be hit with age discrimination.” Even Hillary Clinton, with her extensive resume, is not immune from critiques of her experience, both subtle and overt. Just the other day, a columnist for Salon characterized Clinton’s positioning on the Trans-Pacific Partnership as “way too cute,” a term typically used to discount women’s seriousness. Still, Clinton biographer Gail Sheehy argues in a recent Politico profile that Hillary Clinton is benefitting from a “sixties surge” in the 2016 campaign. She notes that Clinton seems to have achieved a newfound sense of confidence and comfort with her age and gender in her 67th year, citing the advantage that sense of authenticity will bring to her second bid for the oval office.
Displaying authenticity has been a particular challenge for Clinton, according to polls and analyses, and that authenticity is essential to winning the presidency. (A poll released yesterday finds 47% of Iowa voters view Sanders as authentic, while only 30% feel the same about Clinton.) In her 2012 book on The Politics of Authenticity in Presidential Campaigns, Erica Seifert demonstrates the increasing centrality of authenticity among presidential candidates, arguing that candidates’ personal character and accessibility has become a stronger determinant of presidential voting in the past few decades. For Clinton, questions of authenticity have been raised in regard to her “folksy” “southern drawl,” her honesty, her empathy, and her gender. Being “authentic” can mean many things, including fitting the norms and expectations of what it means to be a presidential candidate.
Women candidates not only disrupt expectations of candidate authenticity, but are also tasked with appearing authentically female – or feminine, meeting the often-conflicting expectations of gender and presidential candidacy. Former Governor Madeleine Kunin (D-VT) commented on this challenge to women candidates while contrasting Senator Bernie Sanders’ capacity to connect with voters with Clinton’s cautiousness. She explained to Vermont Public Radio, “[Sanders] can be flamboyant, but if a woman had that kind of style, we’d be very put off. I mean again, there go the gender stereotypes. A man can shout, a man can be extreme, and not be considered hysterical. If a woman had that same kind of style, she would be considered hysterical.” Another executive woman, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, cited a similar double standard for women candidates. While discussing Clinton’s presidential candidacy last week, Gillard noted the need for women to be likeable to be perceived as capable of holding executive office: “If we imagine a man who had had exactly the same career as Secretary of State with the same issues raised, Benghazi, the questions of the emails and the like, do we think that when he was presented for consideration as president the first problem he would face is that people viewed him as not very likeable? I really don’t think so.” Barbara Lee Family Foundation research demonstrates the ways in which likability and competence are tied for women candidates in ways they are not for men, proving Gillard’s observation that women’s personal character matters more than men’s in candidate evaluations.
Republican women like Carly Fiorina and Senator Joni Ernst (IA) have criticized Clinton for being inauthentic, or insincere, in her gender-based appeals. Both women have argued that “it’s not enough to be a woman” in the 2016 presidential race, arguing that Clinton is seeking to benefit from her gender by symbolism instead of substance. Fiorina has argued that Clinton and other progressives cannot define feminism on their own terms, claiming that it “has devolved into a left-leaning political ideology where women are pitted against men and used as a political weapon to win elections.” In a column for Medium titled “Redefining Feminism,” Fiorina provides her own definition of feminism: “A feminist is a woman who lives the life she chooses. … A woman may choose to have five children and home-school them. She may choose to become a CEO, or run for President.” Some have claimed Fiorina’s shift toward feminist rhetoric is simply a marketing strategy, inauthentic in its own right, but the debate it has inspired has raised questions about whether or not there are any clear criteria for authentic feminism and how that translates into political rhetoric and policy priorities for the women and men running in 2016.
Other critics have argued that “playing the gender card” is a symbolic strategy void of substance. Last week, Ed Rogers (Washington Post) wrote that Clinton is a candidate “who is more interested in acting as some sort of symbol than in being an engaged, working president.” Rogers overlooks the importance that identity can have on experience, perceptions, priorities, and behavior, not only of candidates and officeholders, but also among voters and constituents. An extensive literature exists demonstrating the important influence of diversity in political leadership, with effects that are both symbolic and substantive. Hillary Clinton carefully identified the benefit of her identity in an interview with the Des Moines Register on the same day Rogers wrote his piece, explaining, “I expect to be judged on my merits, and the historic nature of my candidacy is one of the merits that I hope people take into account.”
The Clinton campaign has taken on sites for gender bias directly, including the age references noted above. They did so again on June 10th, posting an inaugural photo to Instagram that featured red, white, and blue pantsuits with the caption “Hard choices.” Some criticized the levity of the post, including Carly Fiorina’s Super PAC, and others may fear that introducing any dialogue about candidate appearance will make it “fair game” to journalists and commentators covering the campaign. However, the sarcasm inherent in Clinton’s post simultaneously humorizes and criticizes a focus on appearance over substance, something that research shows is particularly harmful to women candidates. Rather tellingly, however, the New York Times posted an analysis of Clinton’s pantsuit less than a week after her social media dig, with style columnist Vanessa Friedman arguing that Clinton’s reference to her style demonstrates its importance to the campaign (and thus the validity of analyzing it). She goes on to question Clinton’s choice of a high-end Ralph Lauren suit for her Roosevelt Island launch, raising questions of authenticity of another kind that can be communicated by the affordability of a presidential candidate’s wardrobe. To be fair, Friedman reviewed Jeb Bush’s choice of wardrobe for his campaign announcement just a day after the Clinton post, demonstrating that her commentary may not discriminate by candidate gender even if its effects may differ for the men and women she covers.