On Tuesday, delegates at the Democratic National Convention officially made Hillary Clinton the first woman nominated by a major party for the U.S. presidency.
But with or without a female candidate, the race for the presidency has always been gendered, as my research shows — often in ways that are explicitly unfriendly to women. And the language we use to talk about who is fit for the presidency is language that hurts women.
Consider how often candidates are “unmanned”
For instance, male political opponents often try to feminize each other — casting the other as not manly enough. That strategy was well-exercised during this year’s Republican primary. For instance, former Texas governor Rick Perry challenged Donald Trump to a pull-up contest, which is essentially a contest about manhood. Trump repeated an audience member’s comment that Sen. Ted Cruz was a “pussy.” Trump called Sen. Marco Rubio “Little Marco.” Rubio suggested that Trump had a small penis when he said, “you know what they say about guys with small hands.”
But you don’t have to be a man to feminize your opponents. Following Trump’s announcement that he had selected Indiana Gov. Mike Pence to be his running mate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted, “@realDonaldTrump & @mike_pence are a perfect match: Two small, insecure, weak men who use hate & fear to divide our country & our people.”
Why would candidates and their backers try to knock each other down by declaring them unmanly? They’re assuming that voters prefer a more masculine candidate, and consider “masculinity” to be a sign of leadership. And so they insinuate that the other shows feminine behaviors and attributes that are inappropriate for men, making them unsuitable for the presidency.
The academic scholarship on leadership shows that this approach works. In the United States, more people perceive an overlap between their ideas of masculinity and their ideas of leadership than between leadership and femininity.
This is how I analyzed the use of gender in U.S. presidential elections
Understanding how elections are gendered — how perceptions, discussions and judgments about masculinity and femininity affect our politics — could help us better understand presidential elections, as well as how Americans see women and men.
To understand gender’s role in presidential elections, I examined a random sample of 300 print-edition news articles from the New York Times and USA Today that focused on the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees for the 2000 through 2012 elections. The sampling frame for each election year was from Sept. 1 until Election Day.
For each newspaper article in the sample, I noted the traits used to describe the presidential candidates, and whether those traits were masculine, feminine or neutral. Examples of masculine traits that were used to describe the candidates were “risk-taker,” “commanding” and “fighter.” Examples of feminine traits that were used to describe the candidates were “compassionate,” “cautious” and “caring.” Characteristics such as “intelligent,” “old” and “liar” were coded as gender-neutral. I relied on existing measurements of gender from both psychology and political science to code the gender of the characteristics media used to describe the candidates.
For all election years under analysis, 1,545 instances of trait mentions were recorded. Of these traits, 56 percent were neutral; 30 percent were masculine traits; and 14 percent were feminine traits. The most common masculine traits used to describe the candidates were “aggressive” and “confident,” generally seen as positive in political campaigns. The most often used feminine traits were “weak” and “inconsistent,” which are negative.
Here’s how candidates were described in gendered ways
In fact, only 31 percent of the feminine traits used to describe the candidates had a positive tone, while 67 percent of masculine traits invoked did. Positive feminine traits included “warm” and “kind.” Some negative masculine traits used included “arrogant” and “dangerous,” but masculinity was far more likely to be relied upon to build up candidates’ qualifications for the office than to tear them down.
With this data, I developed an aggregate gender score for each of the eight candidates in the analysis. To do this, I assigned a value of one to each masculine trait used to describe the candidate, a zero to neutral traits, and a negative one to feminine traits. Thus, individual candidates’ gender scores could vary from negative one (entirely feminine descriptions) to positive one (entirely masculine descriptions). Note that fewer than half the traits used to describe the candidates were gendered. The figure below shows candidates’ gender scores for each of the elections under analysis.
Who’s “manly,” and who’s a “girly-man”?
Sen. John McCain in 2008 and President George W. Bush in 2004 were most often described in masculine terms. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012 and Sen. John Kerry in 2004 were described in the least masculine terms. But none of the candidates’ scores dropped below zero, because the male presidential nominees were typically described in gender-neutral terms or masculine terms.
When gendered language was used, the writer or speaker was often trying to draw a contrast between a more masculine (and therefore better) candidate with a more feminine candidate. I called this “gendered conflict,” and found it most starkly in the 2004 election between Bush and Kerry.
That’s also the election in which were found the highest percentage of gendered traits when describing the candidates — with the masculine traits used as praise. Consider such headlines as, “Election Is Turning into a Duel of the Manly Men,” “Kerry at his Best when he leaves Mr. Nice Guy at home” and “How Kerry Became a Girlie-Man.” In one New York Times Style section article, headlined “Live from Miami, a Style Showdown,” the journalist used an extended boxing-match metaphor, describing the contest between Kerry and Bush as “a classic case of a dancer vs. a puncher. Mr. Kerry flicks around the periphery of issues; Mr. Bush pounds right through them.”
Not only did this contrast a more feminine quality and a more masculine quality, but the masculine quality is clearly more positive, while the more feminine description, “dancer,” is explicitly described in a way that depicts Kerry as neither direct nor powerful, and therefore negative.
Such descriptions are common during presidential elections. The candidates and their surrogates draw these types of contrasts, as do journalists and political observers.
So what do U.S. elections tell us about how we see women and men?
All that has a larger influence on how Americans think. When gender is relied upon to contrast two men vying for the presidency, it tends to reinforce a political culture of manliness. In a conflict between a more masculine and a more feminine male, masculinity is used to suggest who’s better equipped to lead.
That reinforces the notion that femininity and feminine qualities are not leadership qualities. That may indirectly contribute to the idea that women — who are more likely to be thought of as feminine — aren’t naturally suited to politics. New research finds overt media bias against women to be waning. Nevertheless, we know that women express lower levels of political ambition, and women are less likely to think they are qualified for politics. That could be because of the way our political discussions gender good politicians as masculine, especially during presidential elections, our highest-profile races.
When we rely on masculine terms to elevate male candidates, and feminine qualities to debase male candidates, we are essentially elevating men and debasing women.
Warren’s attacks last week on Trump and Pence as small, weak and insecure are typical in presidential elections. And yet that approach subtly promotes a masculine view of the office. By pointing out what the presidency is not (small, weak and insecure), her remarks presume that the presidency is the alternative (large, strong and securely masculine). This evokes the image of a physically strong man — and erodes the idea that women are suitable for the office.
Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of political science at California State University at San Bernardino.