What counts as sexist? This week’s DNC roll call might provide an example.

One of the challenging things for those who study gender politics and women candidates in American elections is answering the question “Is that sexist?” Political campaigns are rough and tumble affairs and do not always show people – voters, elected officials, candidates – as their best selves. So when we experience political campaigns in which women candidates take part and we analyze a particular situation, we are often left wondering whether something was sexist or not.

There is increasing evidence that candidate sex and gender issue matter less in American elections than we thought they did. But authors who advance this argument would not suggest that this means that the American political environment is free from all bias against women who run for office. Just as Barack Obama’s election in 2008 did not signal that the U.S. was a post-racial society, Hillary Clinton’s nomination for president does not necessarily mean that the public and political elites act and speak without gender bias.

And so the challenge for scholars and all those who consume political life is to determine when and whether a behavior, speech, or incident reflects some sort of gender bias or resentment. At worst, sexist treatment of women candidates and elected officials can be deliberate and intentional. At its most benign, sexism can be the unintentional or reflexive action of those socialized to a world in which women were less likely to seek political power.

There is always sexism that is raw and obvious to most observers. The man in 2008 who called on candidate Hillary Clinton to “iron my shirt” was engaging in sexist (and boorish) behavior. Much of the conversation of Sarah Palin in 2008 and her treatment by the public and the media was sexist. Calling her Caribou Barbie, commenting on her physical beauty, questioning her ability to serve as vice-president because of her motherhood status were all behaviors that tap into gendered beliefs and stereotypes about women.

The “hard” questions involve situations that might be a bit less blatant. For example, I have been asked many times about Donald Trump’s sexist behavior toward Carly Fiorina during the Republican primaries, particularly his condescending words and his comments about her appearance. I have argued that I don’t see these actions as sexist, largely because I saw Donald Trump’s behavior during the primaries as that of an equal opportunity abuser. He was as personal and negative in his comments about Chris Christie or Marco Rubio or any of the other candidates against whom he competed. His boorish behavior might be considered sexist if he had only treated Fiorina that way. But he appears to treat all opponents with equal disdain and cruelty.

sandersInstead, as a possible example of “soft” or “ingrained” sexism, I offer the occurrence of the roll call vote to nominate Hillary Clinton for president at the Democratic National Convention. Clinton earned 3.7 million more votes and 1000 more delegates than did Senator Bernie Sanders. And yet, since wounds among the Sanders supporters were fresh and unity was the party’s main goal, the campaigns engaged in a negotiation over how the roll call of states would play out. As a comparison, in 2008, when Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, the orchestration of the roll call had the delegation from the state of Illinois “pass” on its turn to cast delegate votes in favor of letting the New York delegation go “out of order.” To that point in the roll call, the delegate count had not delivered the required number of votes to then-Senator Obama for him to officially become the nominee. Instead, then-Senator Clinton stepped to the microphone and asked for a suspension of the roll call so that Senator Obama could be named the party’s nominee “by acclimation,” essentially suspending the rest of the roll call and nominating Obama immediately. The convention chair moved to suspend the rules, the delegates cast a lusty voice vote in favor of nominating Senator Obama and celebrations broke out in the hall, which were covered live on television.

Contrast that to how the roll call vote for Hillary Clinton took place. The states and territories went through the traditional process of announcing their votes for both Clinton and Sanders. There was no official marking of the totals in the arena, so no one really knew that South Dakota’s vote made history by putting the first female major-party nominee over the top. There was no cutting short of the roll call to declare Clinton the nominee by acclimation. Instead, Vermont, the home state of Senator Sanders, went last and Senator Sanders asked the convention to declare Hillary Clinton the nominee, but failed to call for her to be nominated by acclimation. And since the entire roll call had played out and she had already secured the delegate votes needed to win the nomination, Senator Sanders’ action amounted to a somewhat hollow symbolic attempt at unity.

From the perspective of politics, this is what the campaign negotiated. Party unity of Clinton and Sanders supporters was seen as paramount and the Clinton campaign appeared to have been willing to accept less than she granted President Obama in 2008. But to some observers, the fact that the United States had just made history by nominating the first woman major party candidate for president actually got less attention than it might have if so much attention had not been paid to making Sanders supporters, and perhaps Sanders himself, feel better about things. On a day that should have been a crowning achievement for Hillary Clinton, a significant amount of attention went to Bernie Sanders.

And so the question remains. Was this sexism at work? Would Senator Sanders have fought as hard for his moment in the sun if his opponent had been another man? Would another man in Clinton’s place have given away so much of the historic limelight to the vanquished opponent? Is it coincidence that a woman candidate is the one putting others – the good of the party, the Sanders supporters – first? We can’t know the answers to these questions because we don’t know what would have happened if there were other individuals, women or men, involved. We don’t know how much of the decisions that the Clinton and Sanders camps came to were shaped by gendered considerations and habits. But we do know that Hillary Clinton gave more in 2008 than she got in 2016. Whether this is because she is a woman is impossible to tell.


University Award portrait of Kathleen Dolan, UWM Research Foundation Senior Faculty Award.
University Award portrait of Kathleen Dolan, UWM Research Foundation Senior Faculty Award.

Kathleen Dolan is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. Her research focuses on gender politics, public opinion, elections, and voting behavior. Dolan is the author of When Does Gender Matter? Women Candidates and Gender Stereotypes in American Elections (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Voting for Women: How the Public Evaluates Women Candidates (Westview Press, 2004). Her work has also appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals and edited books. She has served as co-editor of the journal Politics & Gender and as a member of the board of the American National Election Studies.