Losses come in the backlash. Trump gets disinvited from a conservative event. And he likely loses ever more potential to pivot to a winning presidential candidacy—which some have questioned he really wants, anyway. Kelly gets a Twitter feed full of angry watchers and several petitions for her removal from Fox or ban from debate duties. Not pleasant, but I don’t think she’s worried.
What seems more important is what the Trump-Kelly interaction and the relentless ensuing media-covered controversy as “politics” are telling us about who belongs in politics and who does not. The episode is almost a textbook example of a number of the dynamics that push women away from political involvement—many of which take root in early political socialization.
Girls differentially learn that politics is not for them–so much so that by college age, according to a recent study by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, young women are half as likely as young men to report having seriously thought about entering politics. According to that same study, they are also already less politically active than young men: less engaged in student government, less involved in College Democrats and College Republicans, and even less likely to discuss politics in their courses or with peers on campus. More generally, women are persistently less likely to participate in politics in a broad range of ways—from donating to political candidates and causes, to attending political meetings or rallies, to writing to an elected official.
What does the Trump-Kelly ordeal show us about how that happens?
What do girls learn about politics? That good girls don’t.
A broad range of studies have demonstrated that leadership is characterized as masculine. Some have more specifically linked masculine traits such as “tough” and “assertive” to political leadership. On its own, the notion that politics is masculine might seem a disincentive for girls to develop a sense of themselves as political.
More troubling, however, are the findings that women are likely to be socially sanctioned for success in a “male” job (like politics). Women who do a masculine job well are judged less likable and are more likely to incur interpersonal hostility (like personal attacks or insults). The message to girls is twofold: politics isn’t for you and if you do politics people won’t like you.
She wasn’t nice. So she wasn’t doing a good job.
But being part of politics is being tough. Even—especially—according to Trump, who is fond of criticizing other political players for their weakness.
It may also help us explain our growing understanding of women’s– particularly young women’s– specific aversion to the realm of electoral politics.
Kristin Kanthak and Jonathan Woon recently demonstrated that young women’s leadership decisions were uniquely affected by what they call electoral aversion—a specific resistance to volunteering for group leadership when doing so requires standing for election (rather than, say, being chosen randomly). Most important, Kanthank and Woon show that this unique electoral aversion among young women can’t be explained by gender differences in willingness to take risks or objective measures of ability.
And that study on young adults by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox found that young women were half as likely as young men to think of themselves as likely to have the competence to run for a political office.
Both of these findings about young women are consistent with girls learning about who is “qualified” for participation in the realm of electoral politics from persistent visible patterns that both masculinize the stage of electoral politics and devalue even those women who “succeed” therein. And the stream of Trump-Kelly coverage has had plenty of that to offer.