Student Perspectives on Gender Dynamics in Election 2018

November 3, 2018

From Trump’s emphasis on masculinity and Clinton’s efforts to become the first woman president in 2016 to the record number of women running for office in 2018, the gender dynamics in American elections have been hard to ignore. As a result, attention to gender and politics has increased in recent years, especially among younger generations. Our university courses on these topics have enrolled more students than ever before, providing us with a prime opportunity to encourage young people to get involved and to consider the gender disparities that persist in American politics.

This fall, I am teaching a new course on Gender in Elections at the University of Kansas.  I ask the students to track gender dynamics and draw upon academic research to analyze the ways in which gender shapes political campaigns and campaigning in 2018. Course readings include posts from Presidential Gender Watch 2016 and Gender Watch 2018, which also provide a model for students to follow in writing their own blog posts about how gender has shaped 2018 midterm campaigns.  My students are especially active in tracking the Kansas gubernatorial and congressional races, as well as the Senate contest in Missouri.

The passages below are from several of my undergraduate students who have expertly captured the gender dynamics of several 2018 campaigns, including a focus on gendered campaign issues for top candidates in Kansas and Missouri and the persistence of media scrutiny of women candidates’ appearance. These insights contribute to our understanding of gender in this cycle, as well as represent voices and perspectives from a new generation of political observers and analysts.

Abby Dieter: The two leading Kansas gubernatorial candidates, Laura Kelly (D) and Kris Kobach (R), have employed strategies that both play into gendered stereotypes and align them with their respective party ideology. A Kansas City Star article published after the first gubernatorial debate noted the difference in candidate priorities, saying, “Kobach wants to cut income and sales taxes, along with the state budget, while Kelly called for Medicaid expansion and a quality education for all Kansans.” Kelly said her top priorities are health care and education, which both fit into the compassion issue stereotype for women and are policy areas championed by the Democratic Party. The same can be said for Kobach, whose emphasis on economics is both a Republican priority and can be stereotyped as a masculine issue.

Looking at the candidates’ websites, however, backs up Kathy Dolan’s (2005) claim that women do not focus their issue set on gender-based priorities, and instead list issues on their websites that are similar to their male counterparts. On Kobach’s homepage, he lists supporting education, jobs for Kansans, and lowering taxes as his primary issue concerns. Similarly, Kelly lists the economy, healthcare, and Kansas schools as her policy priorities. The lack of differences between the two candidates’ websites provides evidence for the claim that party stereotypes play a large role in campaigns. However, voters may still interpret the candidates’ priorities as gendered rather than party-based, especially since Kobach has chosen to emphasize the economy, and Kelly has continually reinforced her belief in quality education.

During this election cycle, Democratic women candidates in particular have been strongly emphasizing their stereotypical political platforms, as shown by Laura Kelly establishing herself as the “education candidate.” This not only aligns them with the Democratic Party agenda, but may also be a purposeful tactic in response to the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Democratic women may see these women candidates as the antithesis to Trump’s overt masculinity, and therefore place more value and weight on stereotypically feminine traits when considering political candidates. While these policies may not always appeal to Republican women, or Democratic and Republican men, as Melissa Deckman notes, this particular strategy has worked for candidates like Alexandra Ocario-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib.

Caleb Correll: In Kansas, Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach ran a campaign closely similar to Trump’s in his strong emphasis on white masculinity. Kobach’s platform centers on an anti-immigrant stance, and he has even appeared in parades in a Jeep with a machine gun mounted on its top. Meanwhile, across the country, Democratic female candidates have embraced the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault and shared their stories of surviving abuse. Democratic female candidates are also emphasizing their gender more than ever, presenting themselves as agents of change and embracing their roles as mothers and caregivers.

Emily Depew: Both Senator Claire McCaskill from Missouri and gubernatorial candidate Laura Kelly from Kansas are championing and prioritizing feminine policies during their campaign. Neither are doing so to assert their femininity, but rather to show sharp opposition to their deeply masculine opponents.  In a highly-contested race, Senator McCaskill finds herself fighting against the “constitutional conservative” Josh Hawley. Much of her social media is plastered with anecdotal stories of constituents positively affected by the Affordable Care Act. She also places health care as one of her top priorities on her website. It would be easy to make the assumption that she is doing so to embrace the feminine stereotype that women emphasized the importance of healthcare. But, in this case, that just is not true. For instance, Mr. Hawley is currently backing a lawsuit to take away the protection of preexisting conditions under the ACA. Senator McCaskill has been forced to make a stronger case than ever before to keep these protections due to Mr. Hawley’s strong stance against them. Therefore, Sen. McCaskill finds herself in a situation where she needs to embrace a feminine stereotype: champion of healthcare.

Laura Kelly is also in a highly-contested race to be governor of Kansas. She is facing off against a man who seemingly oozes with masculinity. Similar to McCaskill, it is easy to assume that Kelly should just embrace her femininity and take on stances that would prioritize feminine policies. Wrong. Kelly has not been forced to become “The Education Governor” because she is a woman, but because her opponent plans on reducing funding to public schools. Kelly had to make education her “top priority,” not because it would bode well for her because she is a woman, but because of her opponent’s stance against it. She seeks to invest in early education, fully fund k-12 schools, support both technical and higher education, and improve student mental health. Her opponent’s dramatically different stance on education has put Kelly in a circumstance that she cannot afford to ignore.

Are Kelly and Senator McCaskill embracing their feminine stereotypes in order to win? According to Kelly Dittmar, candidates today still have to “perform gender” to exploit the stereotypes associated with their respective gender. Arguably, Kelly and Senator McCaskill were not intending on being the strong feminine candidate in the campaign. However, they were forced to and, as a result, have needed to “perform gender” to assert their competency on stereotypically feminine issues. Embracing their femininity may now just simply be a smart choice. It will show that they would govern in ways that contrast their male opponents.

Jamie Treto: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York Democratic congressional candidate, is often criticized in the media both for being too “new” and “fresh” and for sometimes not getting the facts straight. Automatically, she is being held to a higher standard than the men around her. Of course, this isn’t the first time the media has tried to attack female candidates. Although criticism is directed to both male and female candidates, women candidates have been criticized on their “softness” or their outfits.

A recent New York Times article written by Ginia Bellafante criticized Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for being a hypocrite. Ocasio-Cortez often argues that the rich have too much power and that funds should be allocated to impoverished people. The article pointed out that Ocasio-Cortez seemed to be preaching one thing and wearing something else. Apparently, she had posted a picture in a very expensive designer suit and a pair of Manolo Blahnik heels. Media outlets everywhere, especially conservative ones were bashing Ocasio-Cortez for wearing such an expensive suit, stating she was a hypocrite and not a prime example for what she preached.

Criticism like this is common for many women, whether they are running for office or not. But this type of debate is unheard of when speaking of their male counterparts. Even after Ocasio-Cortez commented on the New York Times’ post to argue that she in fact did not own such an expensive suit, but instead borrowed it from a Uruguayan designer named Gabriela Hearst, many did not seem to care. It turns out, the suit Ocasio-Cortez had chosen to wear for the photo shoot was not only green in color, but also environmentally green, because the suit was made using compostable plastics for packaging. Regardless of her decision to borrow an environmentally-friendly suit, Ocasio-Cortez was still ridiculed, harassed, and ultimately mistreated.  Although women seem to be making strides every single day, there are still many challenges they have yet to overcome, as well as barriers that still need to be broken.

Christina Bejarano is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Kansas. She is the author of The Latina Advantage: Gender, Race, and Political Success and The Latino Gender Gap in U.S. Politics