Recently, Iowa candidate Theresa Greenfield released her campaign launch ad, “Worth Fighting For.” Greenfield, a business owner and “farm kid” from Iowa, is running to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for Senate; she hopes to be the one to unseat incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst.
Greenfield’s new ad directly challenges Ernst, a conservative Republican, military veteran and the first woman Iowa has sent to Congress. Greenfield argues that Ernst failed to fulfill the promise she made in her viral 2014 campaign ad “Squeal,” which argued that Ernst’s experience castrating pigs would help her cut waste when in Congress.
Greenfield’s ad argues against the limitations of traditional gender roles, stressing her experience as a farmer — and explaining that her father taught her that “there are no boy jobs or girl jobs, just jobs that need to get done.”
That makes her the latest on a growing list of Democratic women running for Congress in mostly red states who feature their experience in traditionally male-dominated fields, such as farming or the military. In 2018, several congressional candidates, including Air Force veteran MJ Hegar of Texas and former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath of Kentucky, produced similar ads that went viral.
By focusing on breaking gender barriers at work, these female candidates are making the case that they’re qualified to handle traditionally masculine issue areas such as the economy and national security. But these ads also frame their experiences through the lens of selfless service and unheralded sacrifice, which are more traditionally feminine virtues. Why are they taking this approach — and can it work?
Navigating the double bind
In U.S. politics, women running for office face what scholars call a double bind. On the one hand, to be seen as leaders, they need to display traditionally masculine attributes such as toughness and competitiveness. On the other, to avoid being disliked, they need to show traditionally feminine attributes like warmth and mothering. Modern campaigns therefore try to balance female candidates’ expressions of femininity and masculinity, hoping to persuade voters to both like the candidate and trust her to represent them politically.
So, do ads like Greenfield’s — which feature women in masculine roles — succeed in navigating the double bind? Political science scholarship finds that when asked to assign traits and issue expertise to hypothetical male and female candidates, responses are largely consistent with gender stereotypes. But Greenfield’s launch ad shows how women running for office can and do use campaign tools such as rhetoric and ads to try to overcome narrow perceptions of their qualifications and issue experience — in this case, by showcasing her roots in rural life and farming.
Republican women (and men) have done this for a long time, identifying themselves as part of a tough pioneer or rural frontier; in doing so they convey that they’re “one of us,” steeped in conservative policy positions and cultural affinities. In their book “Framing Sarah Palin,” Linda Beail and Rhonda Kinney Longworth write about how Palin used such imagery to evoke “identification and approval from small-town white women (and men) who consider themselves down to earth, hard-working patriotic folks not afraid to shoot a rifle, drink a beer, or get their hands dirty.” As a Democrat in a predominantly rural, agricultural state, Greenfield is adapting that imagery to evoke the value of community mutual support, identifying herself as a hard-working patriotic farmer, small-business owner and mother who will get her “hands dirty,” which is certainly the experience of women on the farm.
In the ad, Greenfield shows herself refusing to give in to the sexism she faced as a farm kid. For example, we see a door slammed in the face of a younger version of herself because her farmer neighbor was unwilling to negotiate with a woman. Much as earlier female candidates did in ads showing themselves facing down barriers to women in the military, Greenfield emphasizes how she overcame these obstacles.
Greenfield also uses a down-home image to contrast herself with Ernst. In the ad, she wears jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and a dark blue down vest, looking like an Iowa farmer. The ad contrasts this with selected images of Ernst, well-dressed, well-coiffed, in front of a Washington backdrop. This casts Ernst as a co-opted political insider, not the pig farmer that she presented in her 2014 ads. Greenfield is presented as the truer Iowan, not Ernst.
Are crossover gender appeals worthwhile?
Are such appeals effective? Some political science research has found that female candidates who ran by stressing issues voters associate with women did better than women who did not. However, experimental evidence finds female candidates who convey masculine traits did better than female candidates who convey feminine traits.
But those responses vary by voter. People who believe gender is innate and not learned felt significantly more negative toward candidates whose presentation clashed with their gender stereotype. However, ads like Greenfield’s weave together standing up to gender limits with remaining womanly, defying the sometimes simplistic contrasts offered in experimental studies.
If Greenfield wins the Democratic Party’s nomination for Senate in 2020, we may see a campaign in which two candidates compete to show themselves as the more authentic pig farmer, the kind of contest many rural states have seen in the past. But this time the pig farmers will be named Joni and Theresa and will happen to be women.
Meredith Conroy is an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and the author of “Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).
Lilly J. Goren (@gorenlj) is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis., and co-editor of “Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics” (University Press of Kentucky, 2012).