On the Bias — December 8, 2015

Kelly Dittmar
Dec 8, 2015 · 4 min read

Originally posted on Presidential Gender Watch 2016

From risky rhetoric to displays of the double bind, recent presidential campaign news provides multiple examples of gender bias. This week’s On the Bias demonstrates the importance and implications of the words we use — and don’t use — for campaigns’ gender dynamics, candidate evaluations, and voter perceptions.

Risky Rhetoric

Since his incendiary comments about banning Muslims from entering the United States, Donald Trump has dominated presidential news coverage. His comments — noted by many as both racist and dangerous — demonstrate the influence of candidate rhetoric in a campaign where those running have a public platform and the potential to shape perceptions at home and abroad.

Ben Carson also employed exclusionary rhetoric over the past week. On Saturday, he told veterans at an event in Waterloo, Iowa, that the military is not the place to deal with the “transgender thing,” referring to integration of transgender soldiers as “a social experiment.” Discounting the importance of integration and gender equity, he added, “You know, we have too many important things to do.”

Ambitious Women

Women candidates have long confronted gendered rhetoric when it comes to perceptions of their political ambition. As researchers like Kathleen Hall Jamieson note, women frequently face a double bind between appearing appropriately feminine and sufficiently competent to serve. While ambition is expected of political leaders as fuel for achievement and advancement, its expression by women is often perceived as unfeminine and, more significantly, inappropriate. Running for the nation’s highest office requires ample ambition, and few would argue that any of the 2016 contenders have waged their campaigns without it. However, criticism of that ambition is more common, and more crudely stated, against the women running. In an interview with The Des Moines Register, Republican candidate Jeb Bush criticized, “Hillary Clinton’s life revolves around her political ambitions,” adding, “I think she’s a little bitter” about losing in 2008. Ed Klein, author of the new book Unlikeable: The Problem With Hillary, characterizes Clinton this way: “I think the more people see her, the more they realize that this is a chameleon, someone who doesn’t really stand for anything except her own power. And she will say or do anything, and she has said or done anything, to get what she wants.” This characterization is not new to Clinton, but she is not the only woman who has faced a penalty for pursuing power. One online outlet recently compared Carly Fiorina to Clinton, referring to her as a “Hillaryesque bitch on wheels,” and a Washington Post critique of Fiorina more subtly evoked the idea that she was stepping out of gender bounds by “lecturing” voters on guns and Syrian refugees.

Emotion Over Intellect

Instead of reflecting a double bind between femininity and competence, Donald Trump’s insult of Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin assumed her incompetence was a function of her femininity. After Rubin posted a more friendly review of Marco Rubio’s speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition than she did of Trump’s remarks, Trump tweeted that Rubin must be “in love with Marco Rubio,” providing yet another example of the ease with which he makes sexist remarks. As Bustle columnist Seth Millstein writes, “This isn’t surprising: When women criticize Trump, he responds with sexism. That’s his thing.” While unsurprising, Trump’s reactions are potentially harmful. Just as he has repeatedly reduced women to appearance, he disregards Rubin by claiming her commentary is based in attraction, or emotion, over political competence. That devaluation of women is consistent with this image of Trump signing a woman’s chest at a campaign event last week, providing another reminder that — for him — “cherishing women” may more often mean cherishing body over mind.

What’s in a Name?

When several news outlets, including the New York Times, noted that they would be dropping “Rodham” from their reports on Hillary Clinton at her campaign’s request, some columnists and commentators sought motives for the shift and others asked about impact and gendered implications. In reality, Clinton’s use of Rodham has been rare since her time in the U.S. Senate, but questions have long been raised about her use of her maiden name. Writing in 2003 about her choice, Clinton noted, “I learned the hard way that some voters in Arkansas were seriously offended by the fact that I kept my maiden name.” This offense is rooted in long-established gender norms of marriage and family, where adopting men’s surnames is meant to reflect both union and tradition. That tradition, however, is based on conceptions of coverture (the idea that a woman’s legal existence is subsumed under her husband upon marriage), female dependence, and power — legal and cultural — flowing through patriarchal lines. Those ideals, while not the reason most women change their names today, may explain research that shows that evaluations of women’s traits are altered depending on whether or not they adopt their spouse’s surname. In a 2010 Dutch study, research subjects rated women who kept their maiden names as “ambitious” and “smarter” than women who adopted their partners’ surnames, while those women who changed their names were perceived as more “emotional, caring, and dependent.” As Hillary Clinton seeks to prove she is smart and caring, but not overly emotional or ambitious, maybe dropping Rodham isn’t sufficient; maybe the safest bet is sticking to simply “Hillary.”

Written by

Assistant Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University–Camden & Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers — New Brunswick

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