What Difference Have Women Made in the Presidential Race? We’re Talking about Feminism

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!

This presidential cycle marks the first time that women are running for both major party nominations. But the women running are not only making history, they are making change. Symbolically, they are altering the image we hold of who can and should lead the nation, presenting viable alternatives to the distinctly male face of leadership that has occupied the Oval Office to date. Substantively, they bring life experiences to their campaigns and to presidential debates that are not shared by their male counterparts. And the differences between this year’s female contenders remind us that gender diversity is not only that between men and women, but also among women.

What concrete differences have these women made in the presidential race? Some news over the past week has highlighted one: we’re talking about feminism. Within the past week, Lena Dunham asked Hillary Clinton if she is feminist, Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post asked Bernie Sanders the same, and multiple articles addressed Carly Fiorina’s different interpretation and embrace of the feminist label. After its column on feminists’ perceptions of Carly Fiorina, The New York Times published a five-part debate on the question, “Is Carly Fiorina a feminist?” As Fiorina herself wrote in June, the answer depends on how you define feminism; she argued for a redefinition of feminism to be inclusive of conservative women.

Talking about feminism—how it’s defined, who identifies with it and who does not, and what it means for policy agendas, positions, and perspectives—is a fruitful avenue toward elevating gender dialogue in the presidential campaign. If done responsibly and not simplistically, debate about feminism can bring new ideas, issues and measures of candidate competency to the debate. But this value-added has yet to come to fruition. Despite the attention paid to feminism and the necessary debates about what—and who—counts as feminist, this conversation has focused almost entirely on the women running. With the exception of Tumulty’s probing of Bernie Sanders, few—if any—pieces have explored whether or not the male candidates in the race identify as feminists, support feminist objectives, or have even paid attention to debates over feminism in recent years and in this election cycle. In The Atlantic, Rebecca J. Rosen cites the rarity of asking men in power how they feel about the feminist label. Elite Daily’s Alexandra Svokos highlights the implications of this oversight—especially in forcing men to talk about the policy issues that have stood at the core of the feminist movement’s agenda.

So maybe we should be asking all presidential candidates—men and women—whether they are feminists. Sure, that makes for interesting headlines. But you know what would be better? Let’s take advantage of the conversation that’s been spurred by the prominence of female presidential contenders and raise the bar. Let’s keep debating what feminism means (and to whom) and, more importantly, what candidates’ philosophies and policy positions mean for gender equality. Instead of simply labeling someone as feminist or anti-feminist, let’s push them to explain how their agendas will yield the equitable outcomes that inspired the feminist movement. That means focusing less on questions and more on answers, less on headlines and more on substance, and less on labels and more on priorities. It also means expanding the conversation to include both the women and the men running for president. If we can do that, we may just have the women to thank.

Photo 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.