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How Voters Judge Women Politicians

Jul 6, 2011

Women politicians are making serious progress, but there’s still work to be done.

BachmannAndPalin How Voters Judge Women Politicians

Female politicians are breaking glass ceilings left, right and center.

Michele Bachmann, for example, appears to be the frontrunner for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. And Hillary Clinton came this close to nabbing her party’s nod back in 2008, while four women won their gubernatorial races in 2010, bringing the national total for female governors to six.

But just because women are climbing the electoral ranks doesn’t mean voters treat them equally.

Voters judge candidates by a variety of factors. Though partisanship remains the most important for most voters, problem-solving, perceived moral convictions and strength all play a role in individual citizens’ ballot box decision. As time goes on, women are closing the gap in these fields, where they previously lagged behind men, and are no longer automatically perceived as outsiders.

And while women once had to prove their toughness more than anything else, they’re now judged by likeability, a gender-neutral trait, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation notes in their recent report, “Turning Point: The Changing Landscape for Women Candidates.”

Founded in 1999, the non-partisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation focuses on electing women to gubernatorial offices because, as executive director Adrienne Kimmell notes, those offices “tend to be a pipeline to the presidency.” And those offices require more attention that other legislative races because, “Voters are more anxious about electing women to chief executive, rather than an assembly.”

That anxiety reveals itself in different ways. Yes, women no longer have to prove their “toughness” as much as they did in the past, and no longer are women candidates’ economic abilities flat out denied, but there are still complications.

One of the greatest complications for female candidates, says Kimmell, comes in the form of her family. “Historically, women were anxious about sharing their whole story, because they had to prove they were tough enough,” notes Kimmell. “They used to be advised not to show their children, but today there are more examples of kids being on the trail.”

Sarah Palin’s motherhood meme remains the most striking and effective example. Voters want to see a “360 candidate,” says Kimmell. A lack of children, therefore, can be a potential liability.

“It’s a double-edged sword. Voters see women with children as someone with whom they can connect, because most adult women do have kids.” But having children doesn’t necessarily guarantee popular support.

As with so many things in life, age matters. “Voters are most comfortable when women have older kids.”

Women face pitfalls for another potential advantage, too: the virtue advantage. From ‘Turning Point:’

Voters historically have accorded women candidates a “virtue advantage,” seeing them as more honest and ethical than men…

The advantage that voters accord women on honesty can be dramatically reversed if they perceive that a woman candidate has been dishonest or acted unethically. A woman candidate who falls off her pedestal pays a high price in the loss of voter esteem, especially among women voters who expect a woman to be different. And because the cost of an ethical infraction is higher for a woman, campaigns against women candidates often launch negative media with an assault on a woman’s values or character.

And voters appear to be more willing to believe negative adverts attacking women.

Since female candidates can walk into a campaign with a “virtue advantage,” and therefore have further to fall, they also have to be particularly careful to avoid negative campaigning, perhaps due to the fact that combative women are still defined as catty, or worse, especially when they’re facing another woman.

Curiously, women from different parties are judged by different standards. Democratic women gets high marks for ethics and corruption policy, and Republican women are seen as stronger in terms of economic issues, like creating a “favorable business climate.”

They are equally respected, however, when it comes to immigration, which is no surprise, because the Barbara Lee Family Foundation’s report found women are more trusted on empathetic issues, like health care and education.

This could be because women who get into politics are more “issue-oriented,” rather than to curry influence and power. But this stereotype could also be traced to our overall culture, which considers women more nurturing than men. (They are also, as we know, held to a higher style standard, constantly judged on their looks and wardrobe, another offshoot of how our wider American culture thinks of women.)

The biggest surprise in the ‘Turning Point’ report, however, is that baby boomer women are more likely to vote for a female candidate than their younger counterparts, perhaps, says Kimmell, because female candidates are no longer a rarity for women coming of age today.

“One of the things we’ve noticed is that’s its easy for women to see high-profile women like Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, and get the illusion of equality and equity in office.” In other words, the rise of powerful women eclipses the facts on how women still lag behind men in public office. Women, for instance, only make up 16.4% of Congress.

Though women do face some hurdles while running for office, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation remains optimistic that the proverbial playing field will one day be completely level. They also predict that womanhood could in the very near future become a “strategic asset” for candidates looking to get ahead.

And what a wonderful world that would be.

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