Gender Played a Starring Role in the 2016 Election

That “highest, hardest glass ceiling” wasn’t shattered in 2016. The many reasons why have been thoroughly dissected from left, right and center, with no single conclusion capturing widespread agreement. But it’s beyond dispute that as of 2017, every U.S. president has been male.

Masculine dominance of political institutions—and the presidency in particular—is as hard to break as a thick glass ceiling. It’s susceptible to cracks, and light shines through, but the ceiling remains unyielding.

When the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics created Presidential Gender Watch in April 2015, we were not alone in expecting that this might be the year. We set out to track, analyze and illuminate gender dynamics in what many anticipated might prove an historic election; with women candidates contending for both party nominations, and one projected as the likely nominee, that prediction was not implausible. If in fact the U.S. was about to elect its first woman president, we wanted a thorough record of what happened, how and why.

But we also felt it was important to insist that analyzing gender dynamics in election 2016 was not limited to assessing one woman’s success or failure. Even the first woman’s victory would not erase centuries of gender norms and expectations in presidential politics that associate power with men and masculinity. To disrupt that power balance, more would have to be broken than a singular glass ceiling: the customs, traditions and expectations of male-dominated political institutions. Importantly, women and men are equally capable of making and breaking the often-stubborn standards by which presidentiality is measured.

In our new report on gender in the presidential election, we present evidence of how men and women candidates, voters, and media each contributed to maintaining or disrupting the dominance of masculinity in presidential politics during the 2016 election. We argue that all candidates “play the gender card” when they invoke traditional expectations about what is or is not presidential, although Donald Trump was most explicit in reinforcing the demands of masculinity for presidential office, promoting his own manliness while seeking to emasculate his opponents and critics. (Remember, this is a candidate who defended the size of his “hands” on a presidential debate stage, while repeatedly questioning the strength, stamina and stature of his opponents.) In contrast, when Hillary Clinton argued that one of the merits of her candidacy was her womanhood, she challenged longstanding expectations that being presidential required proving that you are “man enough” for the job.

Assumptions about gender shape behavior, interactions and expectations not only of candidates, but of all actors engaged in presidential politics—including the media and voters. While public polls before and during the 2016 election showed that most Americans were willing to vote for a woman candidate for president, they failed to capture what would be expected of a woman who wanted their votes. Our report outlines the double standards applied to last year’s candidates—including those related to likability, authenticity, honesty and ethics—noting the ways gender stereotypes colored expectations.

For example, some male commentators implied that Clinton might have fared better if she smiled more and avoided that “shrill” or angry tone, winning her the support of the very same voters who seemed unbothered by the lack of warm fuzzies coming from Sanders or Trump. Perhaps most revealing were studies that showed how feelings of gender role threat, or perceptions of the precariousness of masculine power, were strongly associated with rejections of Clinton and/or support for Trump. For some voters, then, “making America great again” signaled, among other things, a return to a more traditional allocation of power between men and women.

Do these dynamics explain the election outcome? Not fully. While some people want to name gender or sexism or misogyny as a prime mover behind Donald Trump’s victory and Hillary Clinton’s loss, it is only one tile within an intricate mosaic—albeit a large one. Recent analyses highlight the roles of race and class in motivating voter behavior in the presidential race, and others point to missteps within the Clinton campaign or external interference by Russia or the FBI as making the difference last November. The big picture is complicated and confusing, but no narrower approach provides an answer with any utility in understanding the past or looking to the future.

Here’s what we do know: Just as it would be inaccurate to claim gender as the sole factor in shaping the 2016 election, it would be similarly irresponsible to ignore its role in the presidential race and its interaction with other key dynamics of the campaign.

There’s no denying that electing a woman to the White House would be disruptive—at least to the image of presidential leadership. But challenging presidential masculinity can be done whether or not a woman is in the race—or in the White House. Indeed, it must start well before the first debate or straw poll.

Breaking masculine dominance in presidential politics will require work by women and men. Those who hope to separate “presidential” from “masculine” must call out gender-based imbalances of power wherever they appear, push back against tough-guy tactics and begin to reimagine the roles of spouses and families, just to cite a few examples. Only then will that glass ceiling come crashing down once and for all.


About and

Barbara Lee is founder and president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
Debbie Walsh is director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.