There Is More Than One Gender Story to Tell in Election 2018

March 8, 2018

It’s not hard to find headlines from the past few months that tout the energy and high levels of engagement among women in election 2018, whether as candidates, voters, or even political donors. The celebration of a “surge” in women running for office and the attention to women’s leadership in the resistance and amidst the reckoning with gender imbalances of power have fueled a particular narrative about the ways in which gender will shape the 2018 election season. This story about the mobilization of women will be key to understanding election 2018, but it will not be the only gender story to tell this year.

This week, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation (BLFF) and the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) are launching Gender Watch 2018 to be sure that the myriad gender stories of election 2018 are told this year. Our project will rely on research-based insights and expertise to understand the nuanced, complex, and diverse roles that gender plays in 2018, as well as the ways in which gender interacts with other key dynamics like race and partisanship.

This approach to tracking and analyzing gender in U.S. elections is not new. In the 2016 presidential race, our organizations teamed up for Presidential Gender Watch. In that project – and in its final report, we pushed back against simplistic narratives about the ways in which gender influenced the election with these reminders: gender doesn’t equal women; gender is, and has always been, at play at various stages and sites in electoral politics; neither women nor men are monolithic in their political beliefs, policy priorities, or voting behavior; and while gender may not have been the determinative factor in the 2016 election, it should not be ignored as one piece of a complex account of what happened in the 2016 presidential campaign. Each of these reminders, applicable beyond the presidential context, is worth issuing again as the 2018 election season gets underway.

So what are some of the gender stories we will tell in election 2018?

We’ll be watching how candidates – women and men alike – perform gender on the campaign trail; do they adhere to traditional norms of masculinity and femininity, or do they offer new models for candidate presentation, behavior, and tactics that disrupt stereotypical expectations of gender and/or candidacy?

We’re already seeing examples of both adhering to and challenging the existing rules of the game. In Missouri, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Courtland Sykes has embraced dated perceptions of patriarchal masculinity that directly challenge the intensifying campaigns for women’s empowerment. In contrast, candidates like Amy McGrath (KY-6) and Martha McSally (AZ Senate) have leveraged their experience as military veterans in somewhat different ways from their male counterparts – as well as from each other. While both women’s experiences in military combat might meet voter demands for tough – cue masculine – leaders, they each discuss ways in which being women in male-dominated institutions has given them distinct experiences, perspectives, and priorities that have altered the gender status quo. Women of color candidates like Georgia gubernatorial contender Stacy Abrams (D), as well as LGBTQ candidates nationwide, are challenging images of family – and gender role expectations therein – in early campaign advertisements (check out this introductory video from MD gubernatorial candidate Rich Madaleno as just one example).

These are just a few examples of the importance of applying a gender lens to candidate messages, images, and strategy in election 2018; by doing so, we will learn to what extent our campaign institutions – and the voters and candidates who shape them – are changing to alter long-held biases to heteronormativity, (white) masculinity, and men.

In addition to how candidates navigate gender on the campaign trail, we’ll be telling a complex story about how gender influences voter perceptions, evaluations, and decisions in election 2018. Telling that story will require interrogating intersections of race, class, party, and gender, as well as drawing upon new research like that from Amanda Bittner and Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant that challenges us to look beyond a simple sex binary in understanding gender gaps in political beliefs. It will necessitate continued reminders that women voters – like men voters – are not monolithic, and that treating them as such contributes to inaccurate and incomplete narratives of gender differences in voter beliefs and behavior.

Perhaps more than in recent elections, voters will be primed to think about gender disparities in power, sexual abuse and exploitation, and policy agendas related to gender equality due to the saliency of #meToo, sustained attention to women’s activism, and marked differences in voter reactions to the gendered rhetoric and behavior of our current president. This reality will likely influence voters’ orientation toward the 2018 election, and candidates may work to leverage this moment of reckoning to their electoral advantage. Women candidates like Sol Flores (IL-4) are already doing this by telling their own #meToo stories on the campaign trail, translating the pain of their experiences into proof of the credibility, authenticity, and passion they will bring to addressing this issue, as well as evidence of their personal resilience.

In addition to these varied gender stories, we’ll also complicate the already-dominant narratives about gender in this year’s campaigns. As I have written elsewhere, proclamations of another “Year of the Woman” may be overstated – or at least short on key points for context. Partisan disparities in the “surge” of women’s candidates, as well as the parallel increase in the number of men running this year, are just some dynamics that have been under-examined in reporting and commentary on the “Pink Wave.” These points of caution are not issued as an exercise in contrarianism; instead, they are key to ensuring that the story told post-election about women’s progress is complete and cognizant of the challenges that women candidates will confront in this cycle.

There is no shortage of sites on which gender will shape electoral dynamics in election 2018. That means we’ve got many gender stories to tell, not just one. So let’s get started.