By Mandy Dean – Washington, DC
2016: The year America determined explicit proof that someone is a misogynist is not a disqualifying factor to be Leader of the Free World.
Secretary Clinton possessed extensive knowledge of foreign diplomacy, domestic policy and drew from a record of life in public service. No one can refute Donald Trump’s opponent was a uniquely qualified presidential candidate.
But she was also not a man.
Claims of bias against female candidates abound in American politics, one of the many fronts where the War on Women continues to rage.
From superficial media coverage to a voter’s ingrained skepticism regarding women as natural leaders, the no-brainer conclusion why so few women dive into a life of public service is it’s generally impractical, more challenging or simply less rewarding for women to run for office.
But according to those who study the correlation between gender and politics, the perception that women routinely encounter a gender-based series of obstacles complicating the path to elective office is a common misperception.
In fact, data suggests otherwise – the perceived burden of being a woman courting votes is mostly a myth. Female candidates often have very few impediments in their way to earning a constituency. So, perhaps the issue may be more nuanced.
“Women on the Run” is a recently released book that challenges the prevailing view that keep many women home on Filing Day. Authors Danny Hayes (George Washington University) and Jennifer Lawless (American University) argue the declining novelty of women in politics and media, coupled with the polarization of political parties, has left little space for the sex of a candidate to influence modern campaigns.
At a small panel discussion held in March, moderated by CNN analyst Candy Crowley, Hayes and Lawless previewed their findings and further explained the thesis.
Over years of research and on-the-ground reporting, they analyzed the 2010 and 2014 congressional elections. Their findings revealed “male and female House candidates communicated similar messages on the campaign trail, reached similar fundraising goals, received similar coverage in the local press and garnered similar evaluations from voters in their districts.”
A compelling report, to be sure. But how could any argument be made that sexism was less than a large contributing factor to the former Secretary’s defeat? How could there be statistical data demonstrating a woman’s equal opportunity and reception within the public space?
Professors Hayes and Lawless asked to table speculation about the past race for the White House, contending the 2016 election was atypical and a statistical anomaly, but they did offer a unified argument for understanding the role gender plays in contemporary congressional elections.
Though some eyes are glued to Anderson Cooper or Rachel Maddow during national campaign theatrics, most voters still rely on community bulletins and local papers as a primary source for congressional race news. Speaking with local news directors and field reporters, Hayes and Lawless discovered focusing on the sex of a candidate was not intriguing to their readership, nor was it relevant information.
“The Battle of the Sexes has lost its luster and just doesn’t sell papers,” Hayes said.
But when pressed to defend notorious instances of sexist headlines or coverage in recent years, they put forth the perspective that it is because such occurrences are so rare they become larger stories, and audiences internalize this coverage as an issue more common than it actually is. Many women running for office may carry with them anecdotal evidence of misogynistic, brash interactions, but data suggests “high-profile cases of blatant sexism exist due to their unusual nature itself.”
By no means are they condoning or glossing over that many women often feel discriminated against, but based on data, it is only when a candidate herself injects gender into her campaign narrative that media and voters are likely to consider it at all.
Local races and even most House district seats represent small, tightknit communities, where women are able to build networks and raise campaign funds. Lawless notes, however, when races are geographically broadened— Senate and national campaigns, for example— women may find fundraising efforts more challenging as resources are limited and typically funneled through male-dominated-and-controlled channels.
Hayes also conceded that incumbents are invariably more likely to win due to name recognition and comfortable familiarity with voters. And most incumbents are, of course, men.
“However, above all, partisanship runs the gauntlet,” said Hayes and Lawless, agreeing sexist behavior or punditry is not necessarily indicative of a voter’s choice.
Recall when 2016 Trump voters were 2008 Palin supporters. Though they may have hollered sexist chants at a Trump rally, they voted as a statistical block for a woman vice presidential candidate just eight years back. The divisive pitting of (D)s vs. (R)s remains the truest determining factor of electoral victory for women running for office.
Statistics also suggest that while both men and women will vote for men, it may be difficult for women to truly view other women as possessing the same natural leadership qualities or capabilities. The concern is women are less likely to even put a hat in the ring due to their perceptions of the hassles and headaches of being a woman on the run.
As said by California Senator Diane Feinstein, “2 percent may be okay for milk, but it sure isn’t for the [representation of women in the] U.S. Senate.”
Since 1992’s “Year of the Woman”, when an unprecedented wave of women were sent to Washington, we’ve seen a few more women take the plunge and plot their victories in politics and government. But not many, and not enough.
The value in this research is evident for women everywhere can now look at the data tables and re-formulate their own political aspirations. Women are electable; most of us just don’t know it. We need to retire the myriad of myths that give women every excuse not to put their names forward, and create possibilities for our sisters to lead.
We can raise the money.
We can stand tall on that debate stage.
And we can WIN.
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