Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers-New Brunswick. Debbie Walsh is CAWP’s director.
Never has more than one woman taken the stage for a U.S. presidential primary debate. That will change this week when women will be three of the 10 candidates at each of the two Democratic debates in Miami. Those six women will join just three others — Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Hillary Clinton — who have ever participated in Democratic primary debates.
With six female contenders rather than just one, they will challenge the idea that there is a quota for diversity — defined as anyone who is not a white man — in the presidential candidate pool. The differences among these women are also key to challenging monolithic conceptions of a “female candidate” for president, pushing voters and pundits alike to allow women the same variety in background, perspective and persona that is permitted among men.
Decades of research on women’s inclusion in male-dominated spaces tells us that the impact of women’s increased representation is not simply symbolic. Women also bring distinct styles and substance. The limited research on gender in political debates suggests that both women and men adapt their behavior to navigate the gender stereotypes likely to inform voters’ evaluations.
Aware of the public’s greater scrutiny of their tone and appearance, for example, female candidates and their teams are likely to spend more time than men on optics and strategize about how best to avoid being characterized as overly emotional. When Donald Trump stalked Clinton during the final debate of 2016, Clinton’s decision not to respond was rooted in the caution with which women navigate gendered political terrain. In “What Happened,” she explains, “I kept my cool, aided by a lifetime of dealing with difficult men trying to throw me off,” adding, “Maybe I have overlearned the lesson of staying calm — biting my tongue ... smiling all the while, determined to present a composed face to the world.” Female candidates might be less likely to exercise this constraint in 2020, taking advantage of an environment in which disrupting gender stereotypes and power dynamics might yield greater reward than adhering to them.
Women will not be the only ones navigating gender on debate stages. Previous research suggests that male candidates might be more attentive to gender dynamics when running against women. This attentiveness is heightened in interpersonal settings such as debates, where viewers are especially aware of how candidates relate to each other verbally and physically. The optics of bullying a woman or trying to intimidate her can easily backfire, particularly among female voters and especially in a cultural moment wherein women are calling out behavior that affirms or takes advantage of men’s power and privilege. Recall that when Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sought to silence Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on the Senate floor, his words — “nevertheless, she persisted” — were used to rally women and are prominent among Warren’s presidential campaign swag.
When men take the Democratic debate stage this year, they should be aware of these potential political miscalculations and consider the ways they engage and speak about their female opponents. This is not to say that men cannot or should not challenge women just as much as men on the merits, but it might well be that the days of laughing off the “You’re likable enough, Hillary” moments are over.
Men should also be ready to speak to issues too often ignored in presidential debates or previously asked only of women. For example, as candidates such as Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala D. Harris and Amy Klobuchar draw upon their experiences as mothers to inform their policy priorities and plans, more of the men might be asked how fatherhood informs their policy perspectives and agendas. Like Beto O’Rourke, they might have to confront their privilege in leaving primary caregiving responsibilities to their wives and speak to how they will understand and integrate women’s experiences into their policy platforms.
The gender diversity in this year’s Democratic debates will be not only unprecedented but also informative — providing us with indicators of just how far the party and voters have come in disrupting the dominance of masculinity and men in presidential politics. Neither women nor men will be making a case for candidacy that is based primarily upon their gender, but ignoring the gender dynamics at play in the debate means missing out on the symbolic, strategic and substantive effects of their presence on presidential politics.