On gender, candidates in the Trump era negotiate a changed landscape

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos; Getty Images (3), Luca Bruno/AP
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos; Getty Images (3), Luca Bruno/AP

In Wisconsin last week, Kelda Roys, a Democratic candidate for governor, appeared on camera while breastfeeding her daughter — and though that’s not what she set out to do (the 4-month-old got hungry while her mother was filming an ad about banning BPA in bottles), it seems fitting for the times.

Two states away in Missouri, meanwhile, on the other end of the masculine/feminine axis, Republican Senate hopeful Courtland Sykes has spent weeks not apologizing for his Facebook post describing feminists as “career-obsessed banshees” and declaring he expects his fiancée to fix him “a home-cooked dinner every night.” And while he insists he supports women’s rights, his particular way of doing so seems to reflect something about the moment as well.

Gender is back with a vengeance in political campaigns. Not that it ever went away completely, but as recently as the last midterm elections it had settled into somewhat of a background hum. The benefits and challenges of running as a man or a woman were studied and known; the candidates were oblique about using whatever advantages and weapons they might have; voters’ biases were more often of the unconscious or unspoken variety.

Not anymore.

“Since Trump and his appeal to toxic masculinity, and then the response to that in the form of #MeToo, there’s been a shift,” says Erin Cassese, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University whose research focuses on gender in politics. “People feel more strongly about what men and women should and should not do. Prejudices that had gone underground, and/or were alluded to in coded language — it’s become more acceptable to express those things.”

She and others who follow campaigns predict that the 2018 midterms will be the most direct use of gendered signals, tropes, stereotypes and attacks in decades.

“Gender matters to more voters this year,” she says, “but it matters in different ways to different voters, and candidates have to navigate that.”

The 2016 presidential campaign was like no other in terms of gender dynamics, and not only because it included the first woman nominee of a major party.

On one side, it featured a Republican man who “reinforced the most patriarchal norms of masculinity,” says Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which has just launched a project called “Gender Watch” to monitor the ways both men and women portray themselves in the midterms. “Donald Trump campaigned in a way that reinforced stereotypic ways of masculinity that we have not seen in more than a decade. He was successful. Voters responded positively in particular portions of the electorate.”

In facing that idea of masculinity, the Democratic woman showed that much of the accumulated conventional gender research is correct: Women will be subjected to greater scrutiny of their appearance, will be seen as shrill, will have ambition held against them. But there were also surprises. Male candidates have traditionally been warned that attacks on women backfire, for instance, but Trump attacked with apparent glee. Voters were thought to give women extra points for honesty, but Trump successfully portrayed Hillary Clinton as “crooked.”

What, then, does this mean for men and women running in 2018, particularly for higher state and national office?

For some the takeaway is that the Trump blueprint works, making it OK to call working women banshees and say your dinner should be on the table by six. Roy Moore believed that a similar tone would play well with Alabama voters (and it might have if not for the revelations about his past behavior with minors), and Rick Saccone, who lost a special Pennsylvania congressional election on Tuesday, had been boasting, “I was Trump before Trump was Trump,” and spoke in a similar macho tone.

The fact that the most forceful of the Trump imitators to face voters thus far have fallen short hints at the limits of that strategy and the fact that it does not account for a second legacy of Trump’s win — the pushback. Women in particular have responded with organized outrage of an intensity rarely seen in American politics, certainly not in the decades since the Clarence Thomas hearings led to the election of a record number of women to Congress in 1992. Anger at sexism during the campaign helped fuel the #MeToo movement and is responsible for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women deciding to run for all levels of elected office for the first time.

They will run races in a new electoral landscape, one where the old campaign strategies may not apply but the new ones are not yet clear.

“All the focus on more women running can distract from the larger point,” Dittmar says. “The question of whether we will see stasis or change is not entirely about how many more women might win, but rather how much the candidates across genders will disrupt some of the norms of this masculine institution. Beyond the number of folks that are running, we need to look at how are they running? How are voters responding to their choices? How are men and women balancing the traits of masculinity and femininity?”

It is still the early days, but already there are examples of candidates feeling their way as they go. Roys’s breastfeeding ad, for example, which celebrates the candidate’s feminine credentials at the same time as her feminist ones. Or Sol Flores, seeking the Democratic nomination to Congress in Illinois’s Fourth District in a primary on Tuesday, who created a stir with a campaign spot discussing being sexually abused by a family friend when she was 11. There was a time when such vulnerability would be seen as weakness and women candidates were loath to appear weak; now it is an exhibition of strength.

Or look at the contrast between Martha McSally, a retired Air Force colonel and incumbent congresswoman currently seeking the Republican Senate nomination in Arizona, and Amy McGrath, a retired Marine combat pilot running as a Democrat for Kentucky’s Sixth District congressional seat. The old instinct would be to use those résumés to highlight strength, and McSally does exactly that, though with the very modern twist of telling the GOP to “grow a pair of ovaries” and discussing her fight with her commanding officers because she did not want to wear a traditional Muslim head covering while serving in Saudi Arabia. McGrath tweaks the formula in another way, “feminizing” her message by focusing not on her time as a warrior but rather her journey to the job, which required that she overcome the biases of men who did not believe women should serve in combat.

Women of color, who have long faced all the obstacles of white women candidates and then some, are beginning to challenge the formula. The idea of strength has long been particularly tricky for African-American women, says Wendy Smooth, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, who studies the intersection of race and gender in electoral politics. “Voters expect women to prove they are strong, and there is the trope associated with black womanhood that they are indeed strong, but that’s not necessarily a stepping stone,” she says. “If you remember the early days in which Michelle Obama’s strength and confidence were seen as political liabilities that the campaign went to great lengths to disappear.”

One example of new context, she says, might be the Georgia governor’s race, in which Democratic hopeful Stacey Abrams is “not changing the ways she experiences black womanhood in order to run for office. She has natural hair. This is her walk. This is who she is.” Abrams is also strategic in addressing the traditionally feminine areas of family and children. A single woman, she speaks often about the issue of kinship care and the fact that the definition of family should be broader than just blood or marriage.

So female candidates seem emboldened by a changed landscape. But what of male candidates? Theirs are the choices that most interest Dittmar. “When we look at masculinity and femininity, the burden to challenge the rules shouldn’t just fall to women,” she says. “For a long time there were women who felt they had to prove their masculinity to get the job, and one could argue that is no longer true. But the straight white cis men have to be able to present themselves in a way that doesn’t represent the traditional masculine norm for us to declare a sea change.”

Some men are also challenging the traditional expectations. Rich Madaleno, a white Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland, released an ad narrated by his African-American son, who introduces not only the candidate, whom the boy calls “Daddy,” but also Madaleno’s husband, whom the boy calls “Papa.” Madaleno is shown on camera being very much a state legislator, but also a hands-on parent.

For each race like that one, however, there is the possibility that there will be one like the West Virginia Senate race, where incumbent Joe Manchin is running for reelection. A Democrat in a heavily Republican state, Manchin’s likely takeaway from the 2016 campaign was to move to the more macho side. When Republican challenger Patrick Morrisey called for Manchin to resign from his position in the Senate Democratic leadership, Manchin told a local reporter on the record: “I don’t give a s***, you understand? I just don’t give a s***. Don’t care if I get elected, don’t care if I get defeated. How about that?”

And that, experts say, is the key to reconciling how two contradictory messages about masculinity and femininity can drive the post-2016 campaign messages at the same time. How candidates act is a direct response to how they believe voters want them to act. And voters are divided.

The latest report by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which has studied women in politics for 20 years, is titled “Opportunity Knocks: Now Is the Time for Women Candidates.” It concludes that voters want women candidates who are “different,” not only from “the sea of male — mostly white — elected officials and candidates” but also from the “act like a man” version that women used to be.

Another study, though, by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute, found that a subset of voters does not want that at all. When asked if they agreed that society was becoming “too soft and feminine” two-thirds of Trump supporters agreed, while 64 percent of Clinton voters disagreed. When the question asked was whether “these days society seems to punish men just for acting like men,” 41 percent of Trump supporters said yes, compared with 22 percent of Clinton supporters. And 50 percent of Trump supporters said “society is better off when men and women stick to the jobs and tasks they are naturally suited for” compared with 39 percent of Clinton supporters.

“We’re divided in terms of gender right now,” Cassese says. “There’s a polarization by geography and party. Candidates will try to meet voters where they perceive them to be,” meaning there is a different lesson from the 2016 race depending on which electorate you are courting.

Whether that lesson is to magnify gender-linked traits or blur them, each candidate will have to make a choice from the changed array of masculine and feminine options.

“You might want to believe that gender doesn’t play a role in a given race,” Dittmar says. “Maybe there’s two women running so you think that neutralizes gender. No. Gender is always at play. It’s been at play in male-only races for centuries. It’s not a question of whether gender is playing a role, it’s what role is gender playing.”


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