Going Beyond the “Sexism or Not?” Dichotomy in the 2016 Election

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!

In a recent tweet, former Clinton advisor Peter Daou argued that “the media’s obsession with forcing a Hillary press conference is ALL ABOUT HER GENDER.” The tweet sparked a swift and harsh response, with many—reporters foremost among them—discrediting the claim.

They were right.

A very basic measure of gendered double standards is whether or not the same questions would be asked of women and men. In this case, there is little evidence that a male presidential contender who had not held a press conference for over 250 days would be free from criticism.

This online exchange pointed out a much bigger issue in how all of us—reporters, pundits, surrogates, observers and even candidates—talk about and understand gender in political campaigns. Claiming that any campaign dynamics are solely, or simply, about gender is just as short-sighted as saying that campaigns are gender neutral. This simplification leads to an all-or-nothing standard by which campaign events or critiques are measured: they are either gendered or not. In reality, everything in campaigns is gendered. The much more interesting questions are how, and to what effect.

For example, criticism of Clinton’s lack of pressers is not “all about her gender,” but that does not mean that this campaign dynamic is not gendered at all. In fact, Clinton’s aversion to press conferences is very likely influenced by the gendered scrutiny she has long experienced in these settings. Moreover, voters’ reflections on Clinton’s decision may be influenced by underlying gender stereotypical expectations that women are more honest and ethical than their male counterparts.

If a lack of transparency cues fears of dishonesty and we expect women candidates to be better exemplars of honesty, might we penalize women more when they violate that norm? Perhaps. But these are all ways that gender could potentially be at play in a particular aspect of the 2016 campaign; none of them prove gender to be a singular explanation for candidate behavior, voter evaluation or media treatment.

Over the past week, campaign coverage has been dominated by Hillary Clinton’s health, raising questions not only about her physical well-being, but also her (and her campaign’s) transparency. Some supporters and commentators have criticized the heightened scrutiny of Clinton’s health as sexist. CNN host Christiane Amanpour commented:

Can’t a girl have a sick day or two? Don’t get me started because when it comes to overqualified women having to try a hundred times harder than unqualified men to get a break or even a level playing field, well, we know that story.

Quoting author Sady Doyle, Salon columnist Amanda Marcotte noted that “the hysteria over Clinton’s having health problems is ‘uniquely tied to her gender.’” Vox’s Emily Crockett also weighed in, calling out the “subtle sexism” in the persistent questions over Hillary Clinton’s health.

Importantly, many of these commentaries recognize the nuance of gender’s influence in questions about and coverage of Clinton’s health, avoiding the all-or-nothing arguments that curb more enlightening dialogue. But that nuance is often overlooked in a media environment characterized by soundbites. In response to the question over whether scrutiny of Clinton’s health is sexist, conservative commentator S.E. Cupp wrote “spare me,” adding that “gender’s got nothing to do with it.”

Just as it is unfair to claim that the entirety of the Clinton health coverage is motivated by gender bias, it is equally inaccurate to argue that gender is not at all a factor in how we evaluate individuals’—candidates or otherwise—physical strength or stamina. Research on gender stereotypes has long shown psychological associations between femininity and weakness, vulnerability or fragility, in contrast to relationships between masculinity and strength or virility. Some researchers note how these perceptions can easily yield a benevolent sexism, where women are viewed as being in need of protection and thus less capable or competent than their male counterparts.

Of course, these stereotypes are neither immune to change nor universally applied. In addition to an evolution in our perceptions of gender, there has been necessary attention to the complexity, and even divergence, of how these stereotypes manifest, in addition to how they intersect with expectations related to race, age and class, among other axes of evaluation (see this excerpt on the expectations for “strong black women”). Still, amidst this progress in how we think about gender, the endurance of traditional feminine stereotypes is notable.

So is scrutiny over Clinton’s health sexist? Not definitively. But are the scrutiny – and our reactions to it – shaped by gender expectations? You bet. When questions are raised about Hillary Clinton’s health or stamina, they inevitably – even if not purposefully – cue the implicit associations that many hold between women and weakness. They also serve as a reminder that women are often required to prove their strength, because it is not assumed in the same way that is for men. Men’s perceived advantage on this measure does not equal immunity from gendered scrutiny, however. For example, Trump hasn’t only questioned Clinton’s stamina in this campaign; when he called Ben Carson “super low energy” or Jeb Bush “really weak,” he engaged in the same strategy of feminization that he’s used against his female opponent. The gender bias evident here is not limited to female bodies, but rooted in gender power dynamics that define and value strength and ability in primarily masculine terms.

Gender is just one among many dynamics at play in both strategy and coverage of candidate stamina. In Clinton’s case, the scrutiny over her health is also informed by her age, perceptions of her tendency to secrecy and strategic missteps which her own campaign has admitted. That is why asking how and to what effect gender is at play in recent presidential election coverage and conversations is more useful than debating whether it’s sexist or not. Perhaps if we started there, we could have a more fruitful conversation about the extent to which our demands for—and expectations of —“strong men” in the White House push any candidate to “power through” to avoid concerns that they are incapable of meeting the superhuman standards to which presidents are often held.

Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is owned by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.


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.