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The Presidential Mystique

News & Features | October 24, 2016

“Madame President.” For 240 years, this phrase has been inapplicable in the US, but the election just weeks away could change this forever. With Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, gender has been on the forefront of the minds of many Americans. While worldwide over 70 countries have had female heads of state, Hillary Clinton has made waves this election cycle as the first woman to receive the nomination of one of the two major political parties. Her supporters are excited by not only her experience, but also the landmark her presidency would be as the first held by a woman. Her critics attempt to diminish her right to the candidacy by arguing that her votes come from a blind sense of “feminism,” or that people are only voting for her based on her gender. Regardless of one’s political beliefs, it’s clear that this is an election cycle dominated by questions about the role of gender.

Indeed, one of her campaign slogans, “I’m with Her,” highlights the sheer fact that there is one clear “Her” that Americans are talking about right now in the presidential race. The history of gender pronouns in American politics dates back to our country’s founding document: the Constitution. As Tufts Political Science Professor Deborah Schildkraut pointed out, “The only place we see male pronouns is in Article 2 where they talk about the presidency, and everywhere else it just talks about ‘persons’ and ‘citizens.’” This rhetorical choice reflected the unquestioned expectation at the time that a woman would never run for office and laid the groundwork for the masculine undertones that still dictate the current image of an American president.

The language used in the Constitution, as well as that used today, reflects the traditional nature of American politics—one that has, so far, often remained contained to the gender binary. For the purposes of this article, we will analyze how language regarding “men” and “women” affects politics and the presidency. The fact that binary-gendered language is virtually the only kind of language used in mainstream discourse about political candidates is also demonstrative of how political language excludes gender nonconforming, non-binary, and trans people.

As Jackson Katz, author of Man Enough?: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity, asserted, gender has always played a role in presidential politics—it has only now emerged on the forefront of discussion because candidates who do not adhere to traditional norms are entering the race. Katz pointed out the subtle use of certain words, such as being “weak” or “soft” on an issue, which can reveal the gendered nuances that have existed long before Hillary Clinton decided to run. Schildkraut agreed that using this type of language undermines a candidate’s legitimacy. “Going back to the 1988 election with Bush and Dukakis, Bush pretty much won on portraying Dukakis as ‘soft on crime,’” she said. This rhetorical choice served to undermine the opponent’s masculinity, in a way Katz identified as a way of shaming men for not being tough enough or being a “sissy.”

At the first debate on September 26, Trump’s rhetoric sought to present Clinton in a weak, ineffective light, using explicitly gendered language even more than that which was used against Dukakis nearly 30 years ago. He criticized Clinton’s “stamina,” “temperament,” “judgment,” and “not nice” behavior, claimed she “doesn’t have the look,” accused her of being ineffectual during her years as a politician, and repeatedly interrupted her—51 times, in fact. These actions seem to attempt to paint Clinton as weak and unfit to be president. Trump even used Clinton’s pneumonia to his advantage in the debate, disparaging her and presenting the notion that she was a quitter. “You’ve seen me, I’ve been all over the place,” Trump said. “You decided to stay home, and that’s okay.”

Meanwhile, Trump made an effort to present himself as a stereotypically tough, masculine character—one that has often appealed to voters in the past. Trump emphasized the need to “fight” for American businesses, repeatedly stated two words that he criticized Clinton of avoiding, “law and order,” and interrupted her with the word “wrong” six times. He put on a performance informed by traditional masculinity.

Even some popular pundits revealed their inherently gendered view of the political arena. Bill O’Reilly voiced that women should be polite and subservient to men when he criticized Clinton for pointing out Trump’s past sexist remarks during the first presidential debate. He implied that while it is justified for a man to criticize others, a woman should keep silent. “Those kinds of attacks, personal attacks diminish the Secretary,” he said.

Clinton is not the only woman to have struggled in attempting to fight her way into the male-dominated political arena. Republican candidate Carly Fiorina may have had to face even harsher standards to prove herself to her party by putting forward a pointedly masculine appearance. Conservative editor of the National Review Rich Lowry praised Fiorina as “a no-nonsense former business executive who is showing she can play—and throw elbows—with the big boys in the Republican presidential nomination battle.” Fiorina could only establish herself as a serious candidate by acting tough and challenging “the big boys” of the Republican Party.

The history of women in politics extends far beyond Clinton and Fiorina. As Erika Falk wrote in her book Women for President, over 100 women in American history have sought, but failed to receive, their party’s nomination for president. About 15 more have succeeded in this feat, though none on behalf of the Democratic or Republican parties. Shirley Chisholm, Pat Schroeder, and Carol Moseley Braun are recognizable examples of women who made it further than others in securing a nomination. What makes Clinton’s campaign different is that none of these past female candidates were considered to have a serious chance at winning.

For Chisholm, a Black woman from New York who ran for president in 1972, Schildkraut commented, “It was a real statement candidacy—perhaps trying to influence the direction of the Democratic Party. I don’t think even she thought she would probably win.” Chisholm’s bid perhaps had intentions other than winning the presidency. In the documentary Chisholm ’72, Chisholm herself stated, “When I die…I don’t want to be remembered as the first Black woman who went to Congress, and I don’t even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be Black to make a bid for the presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the twentieth century.” Her bid for candidacy, regardless of success, marked a shift in the idea of who could seek the American presidency, and asserted her intent to reshape the rigid and traditional political field.

Whether or not Chisholm and other female candidates themselves believed they could win, the media effectively painted their candidacies as purely symbolic and thus made them so. When Carol Moseley Braun received the endorsement of the National Organization for Women, the New York Times wrote, “There is now a place in the American political system for symbolic candidacies.” Though this seems dismissive, even a “symbolic” candidacy has power in attempting to break out of the rigid gender structure of American presidential politics.

The effects of gendered stereotypes have also hurt candidates who are men. As Katz pointed out, Marco Rubio suffered harsh criticism when a photo of him dressed in high-heeled black boots surfaced. Rubio’s Republican opponents jumped on the opportunity to feminize Rubio and thus undercut his legitimacy as a serious contender for the presidency. Candidates have also made more overt comments attempting to feminize their opponents—Trump called Cruz a “pussy,” which additionally falsely equates anatomy with femininity. Rubio insulted Trump by making a lewd implication that Trump lacked manliness, saying, “You know what they say about guys with small hands.”

The fear of being perceived as not “manly” enough is especially prominent when discussing the military, as war and defense are often associated with traditional male characteristics of toughness and strength. As Katz explained, any hints suggesting a reduction of military spending are mocked, causing candidates who have taken firmer stances on this side to lose, and presidents in office, like Eisenhower, to wait until the end of their terms to say anything against military spending. This adherence to traditional standards of masculinity thus impedes the president’s ability to do what may be best for the country in the interest of maintaining its powerful image. When a nation’s leader and Commander-in-Chief bases military and other decisions on the desire to “be a man,” the harm in having a gendered establishment becomes apparent.

According to George W. Bush’s media consultant Mark McKinnon, voters often rely on the image that a candidate presents rather than their policies. In an interview on NPR, McKinnon stated, “In presidential campaigns, people don’t really vote on issues. They vote on a constellation of attributes…and the most important of those attributes is the procession of the candidate as a strong leader.”

This only becomes gendered because strong leadership is associated with the traditional view of a man’s proper role in society. When psychologist Sandra Bem conducted a study on the character traits most desirable in men and women, traits cited by her subjects as most desirable in men—such as aggressive, ambitious, and dominant—aligned with those ascribed to a good leader, whereas those for women—including compassionate, yielding, soft-spoken, and shy—were associated with the private sphere. Thus the desire for a strong leader to represent the United States becomes connected to the desire for a man to serve as the country’s representative.

However, according to a 2004 Gallup poll ranking the importance of various qualities in predicting how people will vote for president, being a strong and decisive leader was ranked with only 9 percent importance, near the bottom of the list. A more recent 2016 Gallup poll found that the aspects that would most affect likelihood of voting for a candidate were the “softer” qualities, such as “inspiring,” “cares about individuals,” and “visionary,” and not the harder, more campaign-related qualities such as “intense,” “competitive,” or “focused.” These studies could reveal the flaws in self-reporting; while people claim on surveys that they prioritize being “caring” over intensity, actions speak louder than words—according to polling data, it seems the public values masculine conceptions of strength more than it wants to believe.

As Clinton continues to assert herself as a viable candidate and challenge traditional norms, it will be interesting to see how the American public adapts to this new image of an American president. As Schildkraut said, the campaign has already raised new questions, such as “speculation about, ‘What will we call Bill Clinton if Hillary wins?’ And ‘Will he fulfill the traditional roles of the First Lady?’ That’s pretty explicit—acknowledging this is new, and we have these very specific gender roles that are probably soon to be really upended.”