What Role Will Gender Play in the Presidential Election?

With the presidential election now in full swing—the next Republican debate is Wednesday Sept. 16—the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

Hillary Clinton officially launched “Women for Hillary” this month, prefacing her New Hampshire event with Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (the first woman senator from the state) with outreach to women voters online. That outreach celebrated the 20th anniversary of Clinton’s 1995 speech at the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, where she stated clearly, “Human rights are women’s rights … and women’s rights are human rights.” Her message was consistent with an idea featured formally at the Beijing meeting to move gender equality to the forefront of policy and political agendas: what the UN has titled “gender mainstreaming.”

Gender mainstreaming is defined by the United Nations as “a strategy for making women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in all political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated.” This strategy has been implemented globally in foreign and domestic policies. I argue that political campaigns can—and should—adopt a similar approach of mainstreaming gender in electoral strategy to promote a more equitable balance of gender power in the content conversations, and outcomes of today’s campaigns. The Clinton campaign may well be one of the first, and most prominent, campaigns to mainstream gender, providing a case study on how to disrupt gender dynamics and how doing so influences candidate evaluation, voter engagement and/or electoral outcomes.

Clinton’s “Women for Hillary” launch showcased a prominent female supporter, emphasized “women’s issues,” and featured gender-themed merchandise (and even the promise of a pink pantsuit Bitmoji on which female supporters could impose their own avatar). These women-centered strategies mirror other campaigns’ attempts to target women, and are neither new nor particularly progressive. Instead, identity-based appeals like these often result in sidelining women and issues deemed important to them, framing them as “special interests” instead of integrating them into a candidate’s primary policy agenda and messaging.

However, Clinton’s women-centered appeals come after and alongside her prioritization of gender equality as a major tenet of her presidential campaign. In New Hampshire, Clinton reiterated her understanding and approach to “women’s issues:”

Childcare is a women’s issue, but it’s also an economic issue. Paid family leave is a women’s issue, but it’s also an economic issue. You should not have to lose your paycheck or your job when you have a baby or someone in your family gets sick. Of course, equal pay is a women’s issue, but it’s also an economic issue. We have to just get over this. Women should be paid the same as men, and when they’re not, their whole families get short-changed.

These issues, which have distinct effects on women, are—as Clinton makes clear—not only women’s issues. Instead, they have been issues highlighted as key parts of Clinton’s economic agenda in a presidential election where the economy will be central to candidate debates. Even more important, Clinton has raised these issues in multiple campaign stops, major campaign speeches, and campaign advertisements she has aired to date. She has not simply added these issues to her remarks when talking to women, but has emphasized their centrality to her campaign and to U.S. public policy. In doing so, Clinton has mainstreamed gender in a way that few other candidates have done. She has, in accordance with the U.N. definition, “made women’s as well as men’s concerns and experiences an integral dimension” of the agenda, messaging and motivation of her political campaign.

While some have criticized the universality (and frequency) of her gender-informed appeals and messages as evidence that she is “playing the gender card,” Clinton’s approach may well work to disrupt prevailing gender dynamics in campaigns and to revalue issues and credentials most associated with women as equally deserving of emphasis to ensure campaigns’ success. That revaluation is already evident in the 2016 race, as Clinton’s male opponents have had to respond to her agenda and speak to the issues she has raised. And to those who criticize her, Clinton has invoked an effective response: “Republicans actually say I’m playing the gender card. Well, if calling for equal pay and paid leave and women’s health is playing the gender card, deal me in.”

Mainstreaming gender in campaigns does not mean that one message or one policy agenda is the right one to advance gender equality. Instead, it means that the debate over how to advance gender equality is integrated into debates over major policies deemed central to the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton is making a clear pitch for a policy agenda that she views as most effective at advancing gender equality, but her appeals should invite other candidates to offer alternative approaches and perspectives on the gender impact of their positions. The potential for mainstreaming gender is great—whether centralizing issues of concern to women, diversifying appeals to women to accommodate the diversity among them, or recognizing the ways in which men and women’s well-being are intertwined. Whether Clinton’s approach will contribute to a 2016 race that meets this potential is yet to be determined, but it’s surely a case study worth watching over the next 14 months.

Image via Shutterstock


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar.