Gender politics and the race for the US presidency

by Sara Belhay

Image source: trendhutt.com

Image source: trendhutt.com

In a society where popular culture, public, private and professional spheres are defined by gender, it should come as no surprise that politics and political campaigns are too. For over a century, women have pursued the Presidency and Vice Presidency positions with no success. The titles: ‘President’, ‘Vice President’ and ‘Commander in Chief’ all evoke images of males.

This said, back in March 2016, a CNN/ORC poll asked men and women in the US, whether or not they felt the country was ready to elect a female President, and whether they considered it important for a woman to be elected in to the White House.

Results showed that 80% of people believed the country was ready to elect a female President, although only 33% felt it was important to elect a female President during their lifetime.

Voting behaviours are historically different amongst men and women, this is not a new discovery. Notably, the turnout is higher amongst female voters, a trend that has emerged over the last three decades; and traditionally the Democrats are viewed more favourably amongst female voters.

‘Gender has not only become the epicentre of a rather turbulent presidential race, but may also decide the outcome of who is elected leader of the free world in 2016’

In 2008, Clinton rarely mentioned gender in her presidential campaign. It was only in her concession speech that Clinton acknowledged how close she had come to “shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling”. In what is now Clinton’s second attempt at running for office, Clinton frequently references the possibility of making history as the first woman to become President. But just how well do Clinton and the other candidates represent and advocate women’s rights, and how is this in turn perceived by the US electorate?

Previously, Clinton has always had a strong base of female supporters and voters. These women come from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, one notable example is Clinton’s endorsement from individuals in the sex industry, which saw the campaign launch of ‘Hookers for Hillary’.

What Clinton perhaps didn’t anticipate, was a shift of support from young women in favour of socialist Bernie Sanders. This has caused divisions and controversy, particularly when feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright – the first female to become Secretary of State in the US – famously stated back in February, that it was the duty of young women to vote for Clinton. If that wasn’t enough to make every feminist flinch, Steinem accused young women supporting Bernie, of doing so because ‘that’s where the boys are’. So why are young women supporting Sanders over Clinton?

While Clinton prides herself on championing women’s rights, her political record doesn’t necessarily reflect this. As Secretary of State, Clinton prioritised U.S. corporate interests over the rights of women in regimes such as Saudi Arabia.

In a bid to perhaps assert her capability as President and Commander in Chief, Clinton has been dubbed a foreign policy hawk for supporting the war in Iraq, the bombing in Libya and her role in the Syrian conflict; all of which have had devastating effects on women.

Clinton’s ambiguous stance on abortion is also of concern. In 2005, Clinton stated in a speech that abortion should be ‘safe, legal and rare’. In the same speech, Clinton addressed opponents of abortion, many of whom were members of religious groups, asserting that ‘common ground’ could be achieved. Many commentators at the time cited this as evidence of Clinton positioning herself towards the centre and were concerned that this would give Republicans political advantage.

In addition to alienating young women voters, Clinton isn’t too popular with African American women, after assisting her husband Bill Clinton during his time in office in the 1990s, in dismantling welfare funding. This saw a 183 percent increase in extreme poverty amongst black families between 1996 and 2011, according to a report published by Sociologists Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer.

While Clinton does still have sizeable support from women, she has lost the vote from men, in particular white men to Bernie Sanders. The Economist reported earlier this month that, ‘In the states where exit polling breaks down the numbers by sex and race, Mrs Clinton has won on average 44% of the white male vote compared to 56% for Mr Sanders.’

Hillary has been criticised for outwardly supporting women's rights despite a political record that undermines women internationally.

Hillary has been criticised for outwardly supporting women’s rights despite a political record that undermines women internationally.

Fundamentally, Sanders’ campaign has been so popular because he has built a movement based on campaigning for progressive change. His determination to create economic, racial and gender equality, demonstrated by his commitment to reproductive rights, single-payer healthcare, free higher education and the $15 an hour minimum wage, to name a few.

Sanders’ extensive pro-woman record, his pledge to create a sustainable world in which the political and economic systems are run by and for the millions (not the millionaires) and his aim to end the monopolisation of the establishment has allowed him to galvanise support from the masses’

Over at the GOP (Grand Old Party), when Trump announced his intentions to run for President back in June 2015, there was a resounding sentiment of amusement and disparaging disbelief that reverberated around the world.

Bernie SandersFast forward a year, now that Ted Cruz and John Kasich have exited the race, the joke is wearing thin as Donald Trump has become the presumptive Republican nominee; and I fear the reality of a dystopian future if Trump is indeed elected as President of the US.

In examining how the race to become the Republican nominee played out, it was not without its references to gender, sexism, misogyny, bigotry, and well – I could go on.

Trump has a long history of making derogatory attacks on women, highlighted by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly who questioned whether Trump was suitable for the job as President, given that he has responded to negative critiques from women with slurs such as ‘fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals’.

In true Trump style, he dismissed Kelly as a ‘bimbo’ and ‘lightweight reporter’, attributing her comments to the fact she likely had ‘blood coming out of her wherever’.

Back in March, Trump used his wife in a degrading ‘who has the hottest wife contest’, tweeting a picture of Melania next to a picture of Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi, with the caption ‘The images are worth a thousand words’.

Trump has attributed Clinton’s success so far in the race, to ‘playing the gender card’, stating ‘If she didn’t play the woman’s card, she would have no chance, I mean zero, of winning. The women get it better than we do, folks.’

Trump has also used gender to assert his masculinity against his opponents, referring to Marco Rubio as ‘Little Marco’ and even made reference to the size of his penis in a televised debate after the ‘little hands’ insult against Trump re-surfaced.

‘Trump may have tapped into the working class white male vote, with his provocative narrative, but it will come as no surprise that he is hugely unpopular with women. Considering women turnout to vote in higher numbers, (here’s hoping) this could cost him the election’

A Gallup poll conducted in April found that seven in ten women find Trump ‘unfavourable’, and considering women turnout to vote in higher numbers, (here’s hoping) this could cost him the election.

A part of me feels sorry for Hillary, it is still very much a man’s world and examining her employment history, I can’t help but think she has had to set aside her feminist ideals in order to advance her career.

Perhaps however, now I am being gendered and holding her to a different standard; I won’t speak for her. Whilst Trump has certainly not gained the women’s vote, Hillary’s unpopularity amongst male voters, will mean that in order to trump Trump, Sanders will need to secure the Democratic presidential nominee, as the best candidate to win the 2016 Presidential race.

Whether or not a woman is elected as President or Vice President on the 9th November, gender has certainly played a pivotal role in the 2016 Presidential race; and I can only hope that this has continued to advance gender equality.

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