Call it the Rihanna approach to running for office. (Or for those of a different generation, it’s the I-am-woman-hear-me-roar approach to politics.)
For decades, women who have run for office have run cautious races. They have carefully crafted their biographies and resumes (and often their clothing choices) to appear tough, but not too tough, confident, but not too confident, ambitious, but not too ambitious, family oriented, but not too family oriented.
There is even a campaign guide put out by the Barbara Lee Foundation that lays out the rules of the road for what it takes to be a successful women candidate, given the inherent gender bias of the electorate.
Sample lines from the guide lays out a thicket of issues that women have to be mindful of when running for office:
- Voters are in tune to whether a woman candidate sounds authoritative or bossy, serious or boring, high-pitched and unsure, or clear and steady.
- If a candidate doesn’t have children, voters worry that she may not be able to truly understand the concerns of families.
- Men don’t need to be liked to be elected. Voters are less likely to vote for a woman candidate they do not like. Women face the double bind of needing to show competence and likeability.
And how to overcome these dilemmas? Well, the guide suggests for instance, starting a campaign with a listening tour (perhaps in a Scooby Doo Van, a la Hillary Clinton), providing more evidence of expertise than men (white papers, anyone?) and utilizing the full life experience that comes with being a woman.
It’s that last bit of advice that women of the 2018 cycle seem to be taking most seriously. For generations, women have shied away from “running as women.”
An episode of HBO’s “Veep” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the title character captures it best. At one point, Selina Meyer’s campaign aide suggested that she preface her answer to an abortion question with the phrase “As a woman …” Yet, echoing the approach of a slew of past women candidates, she expressed horror at this idea.
“No, no, no, I can’t identify as a woman! People can’t know that,” she said. “Men hate that. And women who hate women hate that, which, I believe, is most women.”
The irony here is that even when women don’t “play the gender card” they are seen as gendered, because unlike men, women are always seen as gendered. Who played the gender card more than Donald Trump in 2016? His hands, for example, are normal size, he will have you know.
But back to 2018 and Rihanna.
Much has been made about this possibly being another “Year of the Woman.” The phrase hearkens back to 1992, when in the wake of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, women increased their representation in Congress. This year, that doesn’t appear likely.
As the headline from the must-read Gender Watch 2018 newsletter says: “Ocasio-Cortez Scores Major Win in New York, But Few Other Gains Likely for Women Across Four Primary States (CO, MD, NY, OK).”
So, yes, women are running and losing, and often when they win, they are in some of the most uphill battles of the cycle. Still, there are some wins that can’t be measured in the usual bean-counting metrics.
In the Maryland race, Democrat Krish Vignarajah featured herself in a campaign ad breastfeeding her child. A viral ad from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s winning primary campaign featured her putting on mascara in her bathroom and heels on the subway platform. Amy McGrath, who also knocked off an establishment choice, ran an ad in Kentucky about how her dreams of being a fighter pilot, ran against gender norms established by Congress. (She parroted “Veep” when asked about running being a woman candidate in this cycle – “With regard to women, I’m not running as a woman – Vote for me!”). Ayanna Pressley, running for Congress, ran an ad where she details years of sexual abuse and almost cries when she talks about her mother.
“In the past, women candidates too often either felt or were told to hide parts of themselves in order to fit the mold of political candidacy – a mold created by men,” said Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women and Politics. “This year, you are seeing women present themselves in ways that are not only more true to themselves, but challenge voters to think differently about both candidacy and gender.”
By tapping into their inner Rihanna – who is known for … well … not giving a … (rat’s whisker?) … women are finding success on the trail by being their whole unabashed selves. And that will likely be the most lasting legacy of this year of the woman.