Let’s Talk Campaign: Gender pitfalls and ways around them

“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Estar did, and she did it backwards and in high heels.” I love this saying because it showcases the extra obstacles that women go through, but it is not just shown as an obstacle, this saying highlights her accomplishments.

I loved my experiences at the PLEN Conference on Women in Global Policy, but there is one moment that will definitely stay with me. During a panel with female congresswomen, I had the opportunity to ask about their experience campaigning. The Congresswomen expressed that they had some difficulty with online harassment and death threats, particularly through their campaign emails. I was appalled, but more importantly, I was inspired by her tips to overcome that hardship. I did some research on female campaign strategies and other recommended tips. This article is the product of that research PLEN inspired.

Elise Stefanik, U.S. Representative for New York's 21st congressional district talking to PLEN Global attendees.

Every politician experiences harassment online to some extent, but that negative attention is statistically much higher for female candidates.

Despite having the right to vote for almost a hundred years, women are still underrepresented in elected offices in the United States. Women hold about 20-30% of the elected positions at the state and federal level. Similar to the 1992 year of the woman, 2018 showed great progress in electing more women. The 2018 election cycle produced a record-breaking 103 women elected to Congress. This advancement is the result of a greater focus on female campaigns. More studies and organizations have dedicated more resources to determining exactly how women can best run for office, the strategies they can use, how to maneuver the stereotypes against them, and how they can act as competitive players in an underrepresented world. 

Popular Methods in Female Campaigns

As mentioned above, the past few decades have given rise to more research and organizations dedicated to exploring the more effective methods for women running for office. It is important to note that while these strategies are popular and well advised, every campaign, candidate, and race is different. Campaigns must ultimately respond to their situational context and therefore the focus of these strategies is purposefully vague. 

The “Woman Card”

Female candidates face the controversial decision of whether or not to center a portion of their campaign around their gender. A gendered message may have varying success based on the nature of the race and the demographics of the constituency. Windett from American Political Research explains,

“Female candidates focus on feminine issues in 65% of their advertisements, compared with only 54% of male candidates. Moreover, men included masculine issues in nearly 16 percentage points more of their campaign advertisements compared with women. Male-only gubernatorial races also show a party difference in issue priorities, with Democratic candidates relying on feminine issues at higher rates than Republicans, and masculine issues at lower rates than their Republican counterparts,” (Windett 641)

Party differences and reliance on the specific demographics of a given district are key aspects to consider when female candidates approach their messaging. As a result, this section will address the arguments for and against centering a campaign around gender.

A study conducted by American Political Research determined that women chose to not focus their campaign around their gender. Windett explains that women face multiple gender stereotypes that can disadvantage their campaign and therefore choose to move away from introducing gender into the conversation at all (Windett 628). Women are stereotyped as weak, too emotional, and ineffective leaders, therefore candidates choose to move away from the gender aspects of their candidacy to avoid encountering or provoking such stereotypes. Furthermore, Windett states that some candidates chose not to highlight their sex as to not be labeled as a strictly “women’s representative.” Candidates did not want to be seen as the only being able to substantively represent their sexual demographic (Windett 631). Instead female candidates, particularly running for positions in the Senate, found it more effective to portray themselves as a candidate capable of representing their constituency as a whole, as opposed to a female candidate there to support only the women in their districts.

However, other studies and campaigns outline the advantages gained from including and highlighting gender in a campaign. A survey by Kristen la Cour Dabelko and Paul S. Herrnson conducted in 1992 researched the results of female campaigns that incorporate gender into their campaign message.  The study concluded that female candidates can benefit from campaigning as a woman. These results are supported by the  practical advice from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a foundation geared towards aiding women in running for office, they argued that women candidates are more advantaged by their gender today than in the past (Sanbonmatsu 5). Another study published by the University of Chicago Press examined the impacts of interlocking gender within a campaign. The data from this study is a little older, however it focuses on a time period when there was a resurgence of female campaigns similar to the burst in 2018. The study found that focusing on gender in the campaign message proved to be an asset in that women candidates capitalized on stereotypes by focusing on issues that were positively attributed to women candidates, like that women are more compassionate, empathetic, and communicative. Female candidates then used that focus to target predominantly female social groups, which improved their electoral success (Strokes 244). Strokes, a co-author of the study, states, “The findings… demonstrate that female candidates do indeed gain a strategic advantage when they target women’s or social groups and stress issues that voters associate favorably with female candidates,” (Strokes 249). These two studies highlight the ways in which capitalizing on female stereotypes and including gender in the campaign narrative can benefit the candidate and improve their electoral success. 

As stated above, “playing the woman card” can have diverse effects that condent heavily on the demographics of the constituency and party affiliation. Both approaches seek to navigate what is known as the “double bind”, where women candidates must utilize the positive stereotypes by appearing somewhat feminine, without triggering the negative stereotypes so simultaneously appearing masculine. 

General Strategies

So how can women take their campaign to the next level? The Scholars Strategy Network (SSN) advises the following strategies for female campaigns. The first strategy advice is to look for ways to capitalize on gender-based advantages (Dittmar 2). As mentioned above, women candidates must navigate the “double bind.” This particular tactic focuses on using the positive stereotypical characteristics to the candidates advantage (Dittmar 5). For example, women are perceived to be more honest, authentic, and provide a “change factor.” Due to the under representation of women in elected positions, women are seen as political outsiders. Therefore, their campaign can paint them as a source of change, an alternative to the usual negatives associated with governance. 

In addition, being seen as a change candidate can be used to reach other marginalized social groups, like the LGBTQ+ community, racial minorities, and womens’ organizations. Women’s organizations are especially important, as while women are under-represented in governing bodies, they remain largely involved in politics and are therefore an important group to gather support. Dittmar, an author from SSN, recognizes this importance in the statement, “With both parties understanding the importance of women voters, female candidates look for ways to amplify their perceived advantage with these voters, while male candidates facing female competitors often look for ways to compensate for what they (correctly or incorrectly) imagine could be their disadvantage with female voters,” (Dittmar 11). It is an unfortunate reality that women must face leadership stereotypes, however appropriately capitalizing on the positive ones can prove politically beneficial.

The second recommendation from  SSN is to combat the negative stereotypes associated with female candidates. SSN focuses on two main negative stereotypes that may damage a woman’s campaign. The first being the assumption that women are underprepared or underqualified for their desired position (Dittmar 9). The best way to defeat this assumption is with the truth. SSN advises using every available opportunity to showcase the candidates preparedness for the position, this includes using interviews and social media to highlight the aspects on their resume that align with the position. For example, if the candidate served in the armed forces, statements like “My ___ years in service taught me the importance of security and how to best approach securing national borders” or even jokes like “After serving for ___ years in Iraq, nothing my opponent does can frighten me.” Such statements incorporate their experiences into various policy conversations to not only inform voters of their preparedness, but to deflect any assumptions that the female candidate is not suited for the position. 

Under a similar light, SSN recommends that female candidates pay very close attention to how their family is presented (Dittmar 4). Within Separate Spheres ideology, women are known as responsible for domestic obligations, including child care. As a result, working women, particularly women running for office must maneuver questions or comments about how they plan to fulfill those obligations as well as work in their position. SSN recommends approaching the candidate’s “family message” with attention, care, and awareness of how their voting demographic may perceive the intentions behind it (Dittmar 4). For some women the less mention of their family the better as they will be perceived as more masculine. 

However, conversative women are presented with some opportunities to benefit from their status as mothers, particularly as many seek to follow Sarah Palin’s lead of a “Mama Grizzly” image. Dr. Kira Sanbonmatsu, Professor of Political Science and Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University reported most of the women congressional candidates who were mothers mentioned their status as mothers on their websites, only a minority of mothers articulated a connection between their parental status and their positions or preparedness to address it. While capitalizing the positive messages associated with women can help, it is equally important to manage or address the negative stereotypes for a campaign to be successful (Sanbonmatsu 3).

Dr. Kira Sanbonmatsu also compiled and published a set of  popular methods to support women running for office. Sanbonmatsu concludes that stylistic choices and themes may work differently depending on the gender of the candidate; compassion was reportedly the best theme for women (Sanbonmatsu 3). As mentioned above, women are stereotyped as being more compassionate and empathetic towards political issues, depending on the district and major issues circulating the race, compassion may be a powerful theme within the campaign as it leans into a pre-existing notion and promotes the “change” narrative. 

Along a similar line as SSN’s recommendation to combat assumptions that women are not prepared for the job, Sanbonmatsu determined that women were more likely to empathize with their credentials, however, Sanbonmatsu focuses on the appearance side of this tip. Moreover, Sanbonmatsu highlights the power of imagery while combating stereotypes, in that women should dress more professionally in their advertisements and with less reference to their family to appear more “masculine” as a way to assure voters that they were capable of the job. Finally, Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners expressed the importance of women candidates acknowledging and responding to any mistreatment by the media, especially in interviews (Sanbonmatsu 4). Lake’s online survey concluded that voters respond well to female candidates identifying and addressing sexist treatment. For example, if interviewers ask a sexist question or make a particularly gendered comment, the female candidate should politely recognize the sexist nature and answer accordingly. Female candidates can use these methods to improve their presentation by dressing professionally and addressing sexist moments in the media.

Women, we will face new and gender based obstacles. People want to stop us, that does not mean they will.

Meg Harris is a recent graduate from DePaul University with a major in Political Science and a concentration in International Politics. She is the co-founder of the international feminist social platform Power of World Women, one of the lead organizers for the Chicago chapter of the National Period Rally, and social media director of the feminist zine They Call Us (@they.call,us).

Harris specializes in international political research, as she recently completed a time with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Her research focused on events in Syria and the progression of gender equality worldwide. Harris got involved with the National Period Movement in 2018 and managed multiple period drives within Chicago, until being approached to help organize the Chicago branch of the national rally on National Period Day in October of 2019. Her engagement with Power of World Women and They Call Us focus on using social media, creative works, and international collaboration as tools to further SDG 5.

Leave a Reply