Hillary Clinton’s Success: Challenging Gender Norms for the Presidency

Hillary Clinton’s Success: Challenging Gender Norms for the Presidency

Masculine stereotypes of the presidency persist, but women’s voices broke through in 2016, according to Presidential Gender Watch report

Despite the persistence of masculine ideals associated with the presidency, women made progress in 2016, the Presidential Gender Watch report finds.
Photo: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock.com
When Hillary Clinton suggested that sexism and misogyny played a role in her defeat in the 2016 presidential election, critics accused her of making excuses for her loss to Donald Trump.

But Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden, says a new Rutgers report – the result of 21 months of research and analysis of gender dynamics throughout the campaign – backs up Clinton’s claim.

“Gender can matter very much amid other factors so it might not have been the sole or determinative factor in the results, but it surely played a role through the campaign,’’ Dittmar said.

Remember when pundits called on Clinton and GOP candidate Carly Fiorina to smile more? Or when male journalists criticized Clinton for shouting, although they rarely made an issue out of Bernie Sanders’ loud tone? And what about Trump’s remark that Clinton didn’t have a ‘presidential look’? The report touches on these incidents, while also examining how male candidates followed in the long tradition of trying to prove they were man enough for the job.

“The report makes the case that gender was at play in 2016 and we need to understand it, analyze it and address these gender dynamics to open the door to different models of what it means to be presidential,’’ said Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) and lead researcher on the project. “What we saw in this race was the dominance of masculinity in behavior, stereotypes, how we talk about presidential candidates and how they behave, persisted.’’  

The report, “Finding Gender in Election 2016: Lessons from Presidential Gender Watch’’ was the result of a collaboration between CAWP and Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to advance women’s equality and representation in American politics. The research and analysis was conducted by a team that included students, scholars and political scientists from across the country as well as women who worked on past political campaigns. 

Dittmar tries to debunk the myth that gender only matters for female candidates. She examines the strategies that Donald Trump used against his competitors in the GOP field to make them appear less masculine: describing Ben Carson as “super low energy,” Jeb Bush as “really weak” and describing Marco Rubio as a “frightened little puppy.” It was the same tactic he used against Clinton, claiming that she lacked stamina and questioning her strength, which played into traditional gender stereotypes, Dittmar said.

“If you want to understand the long held gender norms of presidential politics, Donald Trump’s candidacy actually taught you a lot about that because he played into the traditional tropes of masculinity and the masculine presidency in ways that were quite blatant,’’ Dittmar said.

She pointed to images of Teddy Roosevelt hunting, Ronald Reagan challenging Walter Mondale to an arm wrestling match in 1984, headlines about the cost of John Edwards’ haircut in 2004 and mocking stories about the heel height of Marco Rubio’s boots as a few of the examples of masculine stereotypes at play in 2016 and throughout history.

Kelly Dittmar
“The performance of masculinity: ‘I am going to present myself to the nation as the manliest man on this platform and that is going to be my top credential for being president’ is a strategy that has long been used by, and against, candidates,’’ Dittmar said. “That is why I see Trump as consistent with what we have seen before, just more overt with it.’’

But despite the persistence of masculine ideals associated with the presidency, women made progress in 2016. The report compares Clinton’s run for the presidency in 2008, when she tried to steer clear of discussing gender in the race, to her embrace of her role as one of the first women considered a serious challenger for the presidency.

This time around Clinton told voters: “I’m not asking people to vote for me simply because I’m a woman. I’m asking people to vote for me on the merits,’’ adding, “I think one of the merits is I am a woman.”  The report also found that Clinton successfully mainstreamed what were traditional women’s issues by bringing policies on paid family leave and child care to the forefront in her campaign.

Clinton also embraced the idea when Trump accused her of playing the ‘woman card,’ saying: “if fighting for women’s health care, and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in.’’

Dittmar argues the success of Clinton’s campaign, even in her defeat, was offering a framework for how a woman can run for president.  

“Because Clinton was seen as a viable candidate and won the nomination people could see that not only can a woman do it, but how she could do it in a way that is different than the men we have seen before,’’ Dittmar said.

“That is where I think her particular contribution is notable,’’ Dittmar said. “Her willingness to talk about the asset, or added value, of being a woman to being president is new. She pushed boundaries when and where she could in a way that will help women running in the future.’’


For media inquiries contact Andrea Alexander at andrea.alexander@rutgers.edu or 848-932-0556