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Does Anxiety—Or Its Politics—Have a Gender?

For most of us, being anxious involves some variation of worrying or feeling nervous about an imminent event or some aspect of life’s risks or unknowns. Derived from the Latin verb angere, meaning “to choke,” anxiety in its modern-day manifestation similarly evokes a feeling of fear of or uncertainty about the future.

In the political arena, however, anxiety takes on a whole new meaning, one encompassing natural and manmade disasters from Hurricane Katrina to economic collapse and triggering rhetorical pressure points like the “politics of fear” and the “war on women.” As Heather Hurlburt, Director of New Models of Policy Change at New America, wrote in the American Prospect in April, both Democrats and Republicans must attend to anxiety, especially the anxiety felt by women, in order to win their votes. In Hurlburt’s analysis, the effects of public anxiety “on women’s perceptions of government and on everyone’s perceptions of women as leaders” could shape the 2016 presidential field.

Whatever else anxiety means to women voters, recent trends (as shown by data gathered from surveys during the 2014 midterm elections) indicate that it may be the determining factor in the choices they make at the ballot box. And as things currently stand, the 2016 race is a face-off between a female Democratic frontrunner a slowly dwindling flotilla of GOP candidates, none of whom can win without securing the votes of women.

Perhaps more so than in any previous presidential race, this upcoming election may well be defined by which campaign can most effectively galvanize female voters. The point Hurlburt makes in her article—and which she reiterated at a recent New America event with Third Way’s National Security Program Vice President Mieke Eoyang, Latitude LLC Founder Brian Hook, and Quartz Deputy Ideas Editor Meredith Bennett-Smith—is that new approaches to national security issues may be the key to unlocking the women’s anxiety vote in 2016. The event was the first in a year-long dialogue around women and politics in the presidential election cycle.

“It’s clear already that gender is going to play out in this presidential election in ways both expected and unexpected—it’s very much a changing narrative,” noted Liza Mundy, New America’s Director of Breadwinning and Caregiving, in her introductory remarks. Hurlburt agreed, noting that the “reason I wrote the [American Prospect] article is that we have these very different political ideas of what women should be anxious about…What you saw in 2014 was that the midterm electorate just really didn’t believe that there was something to fear on the reproductive rights side that should be a higher priority than economic and security [issues].” Women are indeed worried about reproductive rights, but, according to a series of 2014 bipartisan focus groups to which Hurlburt alludes in her piece and described in discussion with fellow panelists, they are more anxious about other things—domestic concerns like the economy, along with terrorism and global security. 'You see there’s this floating amount of anxiety that is really at the forefront of women’s minds,” Hurlburt concluded, “when they’re asked about politics.”

Mieke Eoyang detailed the gender breakdown of some recent polling data, which reveals that forty percent of Republican women say national security is the most important issue. “More Republican women say national security is the most important issue than Republican men say national security is the most important issue,” Eoyang pointed out. GOP women are significantly more likely than GOP men and Third Way’s survey sample in general to rank national security as their most important issue. “So what that tells me is that Republican women are the most anxious of the voting groups,” Eoyang said.

For Brian Hook, former senior advisor on foreign policy to Mitt Romney, anxiety “transcends political parties.” But Hook also acknowledged the increased significance of anxiety to GOP outreach to women. “In 2004, the number one issue for women was the war on terror. Today, it’s a different kind of anxiety,” he said, citing job security, refugees, Ebola, and ISIS as recent examples that “create a climate of anxiety. Does this prevailing anxiety affect the political choices of women in favor of Republicans? I think right now it does.”

While Eoyang did speak to the tenacity of the stereotype of women and Democrats as being weak on national security, she also disagreed with suggestions made by Hurlburt and Hook that national security would be a net positive for the GOP in 2016. Her organization’s latest focus groups in swing states all yielded a nearly universal response that Hillary Clinton is the strongest national security leader in the presidential field. Because Clinton has by far the most experience, “it’s a hard message for Republicans to say they’ll be ready on day one, compared to someone” like a former senator and Secretary of State.

Demonstrating expertise and projecting toughness—two moves necessary to create a public persona on national security that can alleviate voters’ anxieties—often comes at the cost of sacrificing other elements important to popularizing viable female candidates, namely likeability and authenticity. “The way we as a society look for ‘what is leadership’ and especially ‘what is leadership on national security’ is so masculine gendered,” Hurlburt observed. “It’s about strength, it’s about aggression, it’s about power, it’s about thrust…it’s a very, very, very gendered construct.” Hurlburt forecasts some positive signs on the horizon in the work of younger female legislators like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tulsi Gabbard—all of whom are strong on national security issues and have “really found a model of toughness that works for them.” In the meantime, parsing the intertwined political concerns of gender and national security anxieties in 2016 remains a thorny proposition.

Accordingly, Bennett-Smith suggested the possibility that an “undercurrent of unease with a female commander-in-chief could rear its head later in the election season.” For Eoyang, this potential discomfort is a different concern for Clinton compared with other female candidates: “If you have a question about whether or not she [Clinton] is tough enough to be commander-in-chief, I think she has passed that hurdle. Whether or not that would apply for other women I think is an open question.” Hurlburt cited a recent Quartz article by her colleague Lee Drutman, in which he found that the more concerned women were about terrorism, the less excited they were about a female commander-in-chief. “That to me reinforces what Mieke says,” Hurlburt concluded.

The upshot, in Hook’s view, is that “both parties play on the fears of voters to turn out the vote. It’s an accepted sort of reality.” And yet, as Hurlburt noted, she wrote the article to address “these very different political ideas of what women should be anxious about. And this, frankly, I find to be an unfortunately over-gendered conversation. There is this idea that women are supposed to be more anxious about ‘women’s issues’ than anything else, where in fact if you look at polls, women are anxious about the same things that men are anxious about.” One could say it comes back to Latin: When it comes to national security, neither women nor men want their president to choke.


Jane Greenway Carr is an opinion editor at She was previously an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Public Fellow and a Contributing Editor at New America, where she helped to produce The Weekly Wonk.