Gender in Presidential Politics: Changing the Conversation

04/23/2015 02:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

Imagine a president of the United States. Who do you see?

If your image is based on the roster of presidents to date, you've automatically pictured a man. From Victoria Woodhull in 1872 to Shirley Chisholm in 1972, women have sought the presidency and vice presidency for almost a century and a half, but none has yet forced us to fully reimagine who can hold the Oval Office.

Now an Economist/YouGov poll finds that two thirds of Americans say the country is ready to elect a woman president. But as we gear up for the 2016 election cycle, are we ready to talk meaningfully about gender? The concepts of "president," "vice president," and "commander in chief" are thoroughly "gendered" -- that is, freighted with assumptions and stereotypes. The metaphors we invoke to describe seeking and winning high office -- frequently images of sports or combat -- carry weighty gender baggage. Women presidential candidates are tasked with adapting to this gendered terrain while simultaneously disrupting its underlying norms. No small feat.

And it's not only women candidates who have the potential to challenge gender expectations; men can also stray from predictable scripts and rules of the "game" in what they say, what they do, or how they do it. Voters too, both female and male, have the potential to shift the narrative, viewing the political landscape through the lenses of their own experiences and priorities.

Women voters have outvoted their male counterparts for over three decades, but women are not a monolithic voting bloc. Both the messages used to persuade and mobilize them and the media narratives about them must recognize women's diversity.

Any discussion of the 2016 campaign that neglects to engage, or at the very least notice, gender presumptions and realities is incomplete. Hillary Clinton's announcement of her candidacy and the impending candidacy of Carly Fiorina have already ensured that women candidates will be central to the discussion -- but gender dynamics are in play for both these women and the men who will also run.

Understanding how gender is shaping our thoughts and actions in this election season requires going far beyond the who's who and the horse race to reflect critically and thoughtfully on the context and the implications across the presidential campaign.

We know from research that voters view women candidates for executive office and legislative office differently, and that voters hold men and women to different standards. In an era of tracking polls and microtargeting, gender distinctions will inevitably shape campaign strategies, advertisements, popular culture and public debates, and media coverage.

As longtime observers and analysts of women's political progress, we look forward to seeing how a gender-forward election season unfolds. Instead of clichés and easy headlines about pantsuits and catfights, we must see serious and nuanced discussion, drawing on a growing body of research about gender in politics.

Campaigns for public office, particularly executive office, continue to evolve as our collective views about leadership do. Examples of that evolution are evident in research on women's campaigns: The ways in which women can connect with and relate to voters are more expansive than they were in 2008. Women are given more credit for managing the economy (stereotypically a man's domain) than they have been in the past. Voters' perceptions of women candidates' qualifications have shifted.

Will we wake up on Nov. 9, 2016, to the prospect of our first woman president? Whether the answer is yes or no -- indeed, whatever the genders of the major party candidates for president and vice president may be -- it's certain that we'll be looking back on a campaign in which gender was significant in both explicit and implicit ways.

An important conversation is about to begin, and we'd like it to be fresh, wide-ranging, and illuminating.

Debbie Walsh is Director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Barbara Lee is Founder and President of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. Their organizations have established Presidential Gender Watch 2016 to track, analyze, and illuminate gender dynamics in the 2016 presidential election.

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