Gender Neutrality in All-Female (or All-Male) Contests is a Myth

August 16, 2018

With 9 primary elections left in 2018, there are already a record number of all-female congressional contests on November ballots. According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, at least 28 major-party congressional matchups will pit woman against woman this fall, far surpassing the previous record of 17. Just this week, three more all-female contests were added to the list, including 2 women-only contests for the U.S. Senate. These data are notable because all-female races continue to be an anomaly; for reference, 178 House contests already determined in 2018 will pit man against man this fall, compared to the 23 where there are no men among major-party candidates.

Here’s what’s not an anomaly: same-sex contests. For all of U.S. political history, all-male contests have been the norm, and they continue to be most common. In 2018, the 178 male-only House races outnumber the 139 mixed-gender and 23 all-female contests already slated for this fall.

When I interviewed political consultants and candidates for my 2015 book on gender and campaign strategy, some shared a perspective on all-female contests that pervades much political commentary: that having two women candidates “neutralizes” gender in the race. One practitioner told me, “You can make the argument that the issue of gender was removed because you have two women running for governor.” This perception reduces the “issue of gender” to the most basic conceptualization: candidate sex. It ignores the spectrum of gender identity and expression among candidates – even those who share the same sex – and also misses the myriad other ways in which gender norms pervade campaigns in the form of voter expectations, media assumptions, and even structural biases that have long advantaged men.

Gender does not fail to matter simply because the sex of campaign contenders is held constant. Instead, if we push ourselves to understand campaigns as gendered institutions, we can more accurately analyze the ways in which sites for gender influence shift, but are not removed, in same-sex contests.

Research on the dominance of masculinity in political campaigns – particularly at the presidential level, demonstrates this reality by illuminating the ways in which decades of male-only contests have upheld stereotypically masculine credentials – in both expected character traits and issue expertise – as the key to campaign success. Look no further than to our last presidential election for countless examples of the current president touting his own manhood while working to emasculate his opponents as a way to undermine their support. Just as gender was never absent from political elections when only men took part, the stubborn expectations of masculinity in politics has informed voter evaluation and candidate strategy even when the sex of candidates has varied (think Clinton’s 2008 3am ad as a cue for the protectionism and national security expertise most commonly associated with men).

The very prominence of male-only contests proves the gendered foundations of political campaigns; from historical exclusion of women to stereotypical expectations that have disadvantaged them, the gender biases that have rooted political institutions have made it that much harder for women to break in. Once they do, there is no evidence to show that gender stops functioning and, further, no proof that woman versus woman races are gender neutral.

A recent study from Lindsay Meeks and David Domke confirms this in an experimental setting, demonstrating that candidate decisions about adapting to or challenging expectations of gender in the traits and expertise they emphasize on the campaign trail yield varied voter responses in woman versus women contests. More simply, voters are influenced by the ways in which all candidates navigate gender in campaigning, as well as the ways in which those decisions interact with partisan expectations and political context, regardless of whether or not their opponent shares their sex. Meeks and Domke suggest that voters’ gender demands may differ when two women are on the ballot, but not that gender ceases to matter when candidate sex is the same.

In my book, I found multiple examples of gender effects in all-female contests. For example, when Mary Fallin (R) and Jari Askins (D) faced off for Oklahoma governor in 2010, gender shaped campaign narratives and strategies in multiple ways. Askins, a single woman, confronted a whisper campaign about her sexuality, while Fallin was accused by some in the Askins camp of using motherhood as a tool by which to contrast Askins and further fuel those claims. Askins addressed this subtly in campaign ads where she was often surrounded by children and/or described her history of caring for the children of Oklahoma (as a mother would).

This year, the record number of all-female contests provide additional sites for gender analysis. Just take one general election Senate race that began this week. In Wisconsin, Leah Vukmir (R) will challenge Senator Tammy Baldwin (D) this fall. Beyond the differences in their gender identity (Baldwin is the only openly lesbian woman in the U.S. Senate and Vukmir identifies as heterosexual), both women emphasized different traits and styles in campaigning thus far. For example, in ads about the negative effects of repealing universal health care and the need for policies to address the opioid epidemic, Baldwin sits with struggling families and communicates the compassion and empathy often associated with women. In contrast, in one of Vukmir’s first ads, she sits alone – with a handgun on the table in front of her – to communicate her “guts” in the face of very real threats. Partisan differences are likely most notable in these ads, but gendered styles and symbols are also at play.

Even when women of the same party run against each other, gender is an important lens by which to understand the race. Take the Georgia Democratic primary for governor this year, where Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans varied little in policy positions, but still presented multiple axes of contrast to voters. Gender was not only dominant in media coverage of the race – the unfortunate short-hand referring to “White Stacey” and “Black Stacey” cued both gender and race in voters’ minds, but also affected candidate appeals to and reactions from voters. Abrams’ support among Black women voters in Georgia and nationwide proved key to her success in securing the Democratic nomination and will figure prominently in her challenge to win over what remains a red state this fall.

Both of these examples serve as reminders that gender is one of many forces at play in campaigns, that women candidates are far from monolithic, and that the most basic interrogation of gender dynamics in campaigns reveals that gender neutrality – at least when measured beyond vote counts – is a myth.

Gender has always and will continue to shape U.S. elections, in ways that demonstrate both progression from and regression to the masculine dominance that has informed American campaigns for so long. As we celebrate the ways in which women candidates are not only breaking records, but also disrupting gender norms in campaigns this year, let’s not write off women-only races as gender-free. The increase in all-female contests provides another site by which to understand variation in how, where, and to what effect gender influences candidates and campaigns. So pay attention.