The Gender Story I Saw at the GOP Debate

With the presidential election now in full swing, 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!

While much of the “gender” dialogue about the latest GOP debate has focused on who said what about women and which women were suggested for the $10 bill, there were gender dynamics threaded throughout both debates in more covert but pervasive ways. These dynamics may alter expectations about who can and should lead the nation, so it’s worth paying attention.

Foreign policy issues dominated much of the five and a half hours of Wednesday night’s Republican debates. According to, the moderators’ questions in the main debate addressed foreign policy issues 16 times, more than doubling the mentions of any other single issue. The rhetoric with which these issues were debated reveals an easily overlooked gender story about the ubiquity of masculinity in presidential politics. As I have argued in previous posts, presidential candidates are expected to prove they are “man enough” for the job. That manliness can be expressed in multiple ways, among them “dominance” and “protection.”

Feminist scholar Iris Marion Young cites the “logic of masculinist protection” in American politics, describing it as “that associated with the position of male head of household as a protector of the family, and, by extension, with masculine leaders and risk takers as protectors of a population.” She notes that this valuing of protection contrasts with—but also works alongside—more common models of male dominance where “masculine men wish to master women.” Both models of masculinity place women in secondary positions of power, whether as subordinate to or protected by men. Both types of masculinism were evident in the second round of GOP debates, demonstrating that gender dynamics are not limited to situations that explicitly invoke gender or reference women.


From the start of the early debate, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) focused his answers on the need to strengthen the U.S. military, touting his own military credentials to be commander-in-chief and vowing to increase troops in Iraq and Syria in order to “pull the caliphate up by its roots and … kill every one of these bastards we can find.” Graham was not alone in his tough talk, with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal vowing to “hunt down” Islamic terrorists. In the main debate, each candidate laid out aggressive stances on foreign policy, with most employing similarly militaristic rhetoric. Donald Trump assured the crowd, “I’m a very militaristic person.” Walker told them, “I won’t back down.” And Carly Fiorina, arguably working to affirm her toughness credentials, detailed specific action items to build the “strongest military on the face of the planet.” Such comments present a posture of dominance among the candidates and, by proxy, the country. Most relevant, they elevate strength, toughness, militarism and masculinity as key credentials for officeholding.


While the dominance paradigm is most associated with masculinity and men, the image of masculine protectors is equally influential in creating gender realities where men are most empowered. Multiple candidates provided examples of this protectionist rhetoric at the debate. For example, Graham’s vow to destroy radical Islam was followed by a promise “to protect you and your family.” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie shared the fear he had after not being able to reach his wife for five hours on 9/11 and resolved to “never again” see a similar catastrophe that risks the lives of the ones or the nation that he loves. In other examples, protection is closely associated with chivalry, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s demand that Donald Trump apologize to his wife, Columba, or Trump’s assurance that he will “take care of women,” which cuts to the heart of masculinist protection by assuming women need to be taken care of.

In effect, this masculine posture assumes that vulnerable women will concede personal authority for male protection. Carly Fiorina clearly chose not to accept a victim narrative when asked about Trump’s attacks on her appearance, responding in a succinct way that positioned her as a champion for women: “I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said.” She later called out treatment of women as a “special interest” and called for advancing women’s opportunities, positioning herself as a defender of women instead of simply protector or protected.

But it’s not up to women alone to disrupt the existing rules of the game in presidential politics. As Fiorina showed, women are often pushed more to prove their “manly” bona fides. Men, too, suffer when the credentials valued most for the Oval Office are limited to a singular ideal of manliness (think of Trump’s repeated attempts to paint Bush as weak). As we reflect on the gender stories from the second GOP debate, then, it’s worth considering that the candidates’ inability to summon names of prominent women leaders is tied directly to perceptions of political leadership as defined by masculinity and dominated by men.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DonkeyHotey licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


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.