I recently asked a few friends what the 2016 Democratic Primary might have looked like had Senator Elizabeth Warren run for president. They argued Warren would have already won the nomination—her populism and gender would have undercut Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sander’s supposed competitive advantages. But what of that latter “advantage,” gender? Would it have been an advantage for Warren? It's easy to see how it could be appealing to liberal voters ready to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling, but equally difficult to consider advantageous when looking at some of the lewd language used towards female candidates this election cycle. Clinton has faced coarse harassment online, more so than Sanders. A radio host tweeted during a Republican debate in December, “Wow...Fiorina goes full vagina right away.” T-shirts sold outside Trump rallies bear the slogans: “Trump That Bitch” and “Hillary Sucks But Not Like Monica.”
With that abhorrent language in mind, it is worth asking how much these comments towards women are motivated by sexism, rather than by animus towards Clinton herself. It’s a question that was recently brought up at New America’s panel event on the sexual politics of presidential campaigns, “It’s Raining Men,” and it’s a question that might have been answered had Warren run. The answer, according to the panel and New America’s Jane Greenway Carr, is that conflations of leadership and masculinity have a long history in American presidential politics. And it’s an issue that’s certainly not going away now that Trump has won Indiana and is cruising to Cleveland. Trump remarked in South Bend, Indiana this past weekend, “Women are looking for security in our country and they know I'm going to do the best job...When they called her on Benghazi she was sleeping, folks.”
Wendy Davis, a former member of the Texas Senate and the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, shared last week, “I certainly felt the sting of gender inequity [while campaigning], and yet when I was asked by the press, 'Do you feel like you're being treated differently because you're a women?' I answered, 'No.' And I answered 'no' because I was afraid of coming across as a victim. If I could go back and do it differently, I would.” To many voters, playing the victim is playing identity politics, a tactic that bothers Republicans especially, said TIME correspondent Jay Newton-Small, who also noted that the typical Republican voter believes equality means all should speak with the same voice and from the same perspective: as Americans first. Betsy Woodruff, a political reporter for The Daily Beast, mentioned, “When Hillary talks about the historic nature of her campaign, it certainly sounds to a lot of Republican primary voters like she’s saying, ‘You should vote for me just because I’m a woman’,” a rationale that isn’t enough for those who believe progress for its own sake does not a leader make.
But the Republican perspective on political sexism has not been historically static, according to Newton-Small: “Once upon a time the Republican Party was actually the party of women. They were the party that actually got women the right to vote with the nineteenth amendment, they sponsored Susan B. Anthony, they were the party that nominated the first female ambassador, Clare Booth Luce, [and] they elected the first female member to Congress, Jeannette Rankin.” The 1982 presidential election changed that trend, along with the creation of Emily's List, an organization that recruits, trains, and supports female, almost exclusively Democratic pro-choice candidates. This initiated a war for female voters, now the most valuable voting bloc. “Women have swung every election since Reagan,” said Newton-Small. But if the 2016 general election is a fight for female voters, it seems Republicans have some work to do—70 percent of women have an unfavorable view of the Donald, and last Tuesday night, shortly after Trump’s announced victory in Indiana, CNN’s Paul Begala cited that Trump is down 12 percent with married female voters, a demographic Mitt Romney won in 2012.
Female candidates face many types of unconscious sexism, mentioned Newton-Small: they can’t scream; they can’t discuss big sweeping ideas without sounding impractical; and they’re seen as middle-tier collaborators, not zero-sum executives. However, Newton-Small continued, these are problems that impact women most in their first election—campaigning as a woman is easier the second time around. Female candidates are also benefiting from cultural shifts, especially amongst millennials, who often assume equality of the sexes, and become more politically active upon seeing inequality in their workplaces and legislatures. And despite there being only a few female Republican fundraisers, movements rivaling Emily’s List have sprung up on the other side: there’s a Right Now Women PAC, philanthropist Christine Toretti, who has been working to get more women in Republican primaries, and the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that supports female, pro-life candidates. Whatever their politics, female representation begets more female representation—Newton-Small argues in her book, Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works, that a critical mass of female representation, typically around 20 to 30 percent, creates cultural changes that tamper gender discrimination in an institution long-term.
There are still another six months left in this election, which seems like a lot for a cycle that’s already consumed so much media, conversation, and my own capacity for disbelief. The intense personal attacks of the last six months will almost certainly increase as the election converges on two candidates with record-high unfavorable scores. Trump has much work to do if he hopes to capture the female vote—Senator Lindsey Graham remarked earlier this week, “When it comes [to] women and Hispanics, Trump polls like Lucifer [Ted Cruz].” But, who knows, maybe this election will continue to shock. And at this point, given gender’s role in electoral outcomes, I might be more shocked by Clinton choosing Warren as her vice president than Trump choosing Planned Parenthood’s President, Cecile Richards, as his.