Gender is set to be a defining issue in this year's US presidential race. Donald Trump recently claimed, "the only thing" Hillary Clinton has got going is the women's card, and the beautiful thing is, women don't like her". Is that true?
Polls suggest the opposite - Hillary Clinton enjoys a lead among female voters of all backgrounds, while she struggles with the blue-collar male vote. It is interesting to examine who women want to win this year's presidential race - Mr Trump or Mrs Clinton, and why their decision will be so crucial to the final result.
“Gender is the single biggest issue in this race,” said Siobhan Bennett, who spent five years as president of the Women’s Campaign Fund, which supports female candidates. “It’s more important than policy. It’s more important than anything. But it’s more subtle, it’s less overt.”
Clinton is now the first female presidential nominee of a major American party. As fortune or misfortune would have it, she is running against the first male nominee who has publicly derided women as pigs and dogs, gleefully rated women on a one-to-ten attractiveness scale and allegedly made women cry while running beauty pageants.
The race will serve as America’s highest-stakes natural experiment in the impact of gender and gender bias in executive politics. Old gender standards may no longer as accepted or as stereotypical as they once were.
" I think we all have questions — probably as many questions as we have hypotheses and answers,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor at Rutgers University-Camden and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
This is not the America of the early 1980s, when young Hillary Rodham decided to adopt her husband’s last name to appease the traditionalists she worried would doom his run for governor of Arkansas.
Americans claim, these days, that they are ready for a woman in charge: 92 per cent tell Gallup pollsters they would vote for a female president, up from 78 per cent in 1984 and 53 per cent when Clinton was a young feminist graduating from a women’s college in 1969.
Yet they still view candidates through gendered lenses: men are generally assumed to be stronger on security and the economy, women on health care and child care. But there is a vigorous debate among experts about whether or not gender actually affects how people vote in the end.
There is little evidence, for example, that female voters prefer to vote for female candidates. Clinton, attempting to turn the election into a referendum on Trump, may make her case less because women were drawn to her, but more because they were repelled by the male alternative, Trump.
“I don’t think the Democratic candidate being a woman is going to be the thing that explodes the gender gap. I actually think it’s the insanity of the Republican nominee that could explode the gender gap,” said Kathleen Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who researches the impact of gender.
Clinton, long the recipient of feminist admiration and antifeminist loathing, was nearly silent about her gender during her failed 2008 campaign. This year, she has made it central to her pitch. Trump has made it central to his criticism, targeting Clinton’s womanhood in ways both explicit (“the only card she has is the women’s card”) and slightly more veiled (“she doesn’t even look presidential”).
Raising Clinton’s looks may be simultaneously demeaning and tactical. In a 2013 study by prominent Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, the mere mention of a hypothetical female candidate’s appearance, whether positive or negative or neutral, was enough to make voters rate her less highly on every other attribute from her effectiveness to her likability.
But the study also found something Bennett called “antithetical to every shred of commonly accepted political wisdom”: if a female candidate responds to the discussion of her looks, her poll numbers generally recover. Bennett said Clinton has been wise to address sexism in high-profile venues like the Jimmy Kimmel show.
“The old advice is to ignore personal attacks for fear of making them larger and higher profiled. ‘When an attack comes your way, the last thing to do is respond.’
Well, when it comes to women, it turns out it’s the first thing you should do,” said Bennett. “And, of course, you do it skillfully and in an informed way, but you do respond.”
Other conventional wisdom may be just as wrong. Dolan has concluded that, believe it or not, there is no proof stereotypes about women actually harm female candidates at the ballot box.
It’s not that voters don’t harbor stereotypes, Dolan said — it’s that “those stereotypes don’t matter when they’re making vote decisions.” Other factors — particularly party loyalty — are far more important in determining their votes.
The U.S. is more polarized by party than at any time in the last 70-plus years. Democratic men and women, Dolan said, will vote for Clinton, Republican men and women for Trump. Anyone who complains that Clinton’s voice is “shrill,” she said, is “pretty unlikely to be voting for her in the first place.”
“Popular culture, reportage, conventional wisdom have just for so long assumed that a candidate’s sex matters. There was always this idea that the presence of a woman just disrupted all of the natural forces that we knew governed elections. And what my data suggests is that it doesn’t.”
Professor Dittmar, who has surveyed dozens of campaign consultants, said the female candidates generally have to work harder to convince voters of their qualifications. Clinton, a former senator, secretary of state and first lady, has no such problem after 25 years in the national spotlight. Recent polls suggest two-thirds of voters think she has the experience needed to be president, while just one third say the same about Trump.
“She’s very individualized in the minds of voters,” Dittmar said. “When we talk generally about gender stereotypes, we’re often talking about cues that voters use when they don’t know a candidate very well.” Clinton is very well known to the American public, young and old.
Trump has won his nomination, his ticket to the White House, and now the final race between the female candidate and the male begins in earnest.