Another indicator of gender progress – or lack thereof – in political campaigns are the strategies that yield electoral success. In the images they present, messages they put forth, and tactics they adopt, candidates make decisions about whether to adhere to or reject the prevailing rules of political engagement – rules that have, until this point, favored masculinity and men. How candidates campaign, then, provides some evidence of the degree to which gender and intersectional power dynamics in electoral politics have been or are being disrupted or maintained.
Women candidates navigate distinctive paths in presenting themselves to voters in the face of often incongruent expectations between traits voters value in leaders and traits they associate with women.1 Research shows benefits to women candidates who display stereotypically male traits or expertise to assure voters of their capacity for political leadership.2 But those benefits are not without potential costs; while proving masculine credentials, women risk punishment for violating expectations of their gender.3 Gender-aligned strategies, whereby women emphasize stereotypically feminine traits or expertise, have also been proven to bring both electoral risk and benefit.4 Together, these findings demonstrate that there is no singular path to electoral success for women candidates, but there are gender considerations made along the way.5
Those gender considerations will vary based on political context, as well as other candidate identities like party and race. More specifically, stereotypical expectations of women candidates vary by party, with implications for strategic decisions and effects.6 Broader partisan differences in gender traditions and beliefs – such as Republican concerns about society becoming “too soft and feminine” – place additional and disparate pressures on women candidates of different political parties.7 Likewise, while more work needs to be done to investigate and illuminate the intersection of gender and race in shaping candidate evaluations and outcomes, research to date demonstrates that the intersecting identities of gender and race not only shape voter evaluations, but also candidate strategies.8 For women of color specifically, the layering of gender and racial identities tied to groups that have been most excluded from political power can bring both challenges and opportunities on the campaign trail.9
This section examines some themes in how women candidates – specifically those running for the U.S. House – in 2020 presented themselves to voters. While limited in showing how common (or not) these themes were across all candidates over the entirety of the campaign cycle, this brief overview reveals patterns that demonstrate new directions, as well as stubborn realities, in the strategies that women employed en route to electoral success. For women who were not electorally successful, their disruption of the status quo while making their case for officeholding has the capacity to expand our collective expectations of what it means to be, and what we value in, our political candidates and officeholders.
Some women candidates’ campaign strategies in 2020, similar to 2018, demonstrate and contribute to shifting gendered terrain in American politics.
- Women running in 2020 embraced gender and intersectional identities as electoral assets instead of a hurdles to overcome en route to Election Day, emphasizing the importance of diverse representation.
- Women candidates leveraged their identities as mothers to communicate distinct policy perspectives, priorities, and passion. Partisan differences are evident, however; Republican women were more likely than Democratic women to also leverage motherhood as an affirmation of adherence to traditional gender roles and values.
Women candidates in 2020 met masculine expectations of candidacy and officeholding in both stereotypically masculine ways and via strategies more disruptive of established gender power dynamics.
- Some women candidates continued to adopt or co-opt stereotypically masculine imagery and rhetoric to prove masculine credentials for officeholding.
- Women candidates also found ways to communicate toughness in less stereotypically masculine ways, including sharing stories of overcoming personal adversity – including gender and racial discrimination – as a sign of strength and resilience.
In 2020, many Republican women presented themselves in direct contrast and opposition to Democratic women, especially progressive women of color who first won in 2018.
- In presenting themselves in contrast to Democratic incumbent women officeholders, Republican women provided a clear reminder that women are not monolithic in their political beliefs, positions, or priorities.
- Beyond highlighting substantive policy contrasts, however, the targeting of freshman women of color by Republicans both capitalized upon and reinforced gendered and racialized tropes as a strategy to achieve electoral advantage.
Making the Case for Representation
In addition to navigating sometimes conflicting expectations of candidacy and gender, women candidates also make choices about how much to emphasize their capacity to adapt to existing political institutions versus the potentially positive outcomes of disrupting them. One avenue toward disruption is simply altering the representational make-up of our elected bodies so that individuals with diverse identities, experiences, and perspectives are part of debate, deliberation, and decision-making. The representational effects of inclusion can also be symbolic, disrupting expectations of who can or should hold elected office and thus expanding the pool for political participation. Hillary Scholten (D-MI) included this in her case to voters, arguing, “I’m running because it’s time women and girls in West Michigan saw themselves reflected in their national leadership.” Claire Gustafson (R-NJ) also emphasized the need to fill a representational gap in seeking to rally support around her claim that “It’s time to send a Republican woman to the House of Representatives” from the state of New Jersey, which has sent no Republican women to Washington, DC since 2002.
Other women emphasized their chance to be “firsts,” whether the first women or the first women of specific racial and ethnic backgrounds to represent their states in Congress. Research demonstrates that these messages about making history might be most effective in promoting positive candidate evaluation and likelihood of vote choice by women and Black voters, voters who identify as Independents or weak Democrats, and voters who score low on scales of sexist beliefs.10 These strategies are not particularly new to women candidates, but they demonstrate a level of comfort among women to emphasize the distinctiveness of their identities – in contrast to current representatives – as a value-added to their candidacy and officeholding instead of a hurdle to overcome. In her introductory video, Representative Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) reminded voters that she would be the first Black person ever elected to Congress from Washington and the first Korean-American woman to serve in Congress. Strickland achieved those milestones as a result of her electoral victory, but her point – and that of many women who emphasized “firsts” – went deeper than marking a historical moment. In the same ad, Strickland described the discrimination that her immigrant parents faced in seeking housing in 1960s Virginia and vowed to make this experience “ancient history” in America. Together, Strickland’s pitch to voters goes beyond a simple plea to make history, but instead connects identities to both experiences and perspectives that will benefit the U.S. Congress.
Some women candidates in 2020 took an even more direct approach to challenging expectations of who is best fit for political leadership, encouraging voters to revise and expand their notions of candidates and officeholders. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) effectively levied this strategy in 2018, opening her first – and subsequently viral – campaign advertisement by saying, “Women who look like me are not supposed to run for office” and thus directly confronting perceptions of what is “normal” in congressional elections. In 2020, multiple women, especially women of color, followed her lead. When Jackie Gordon (D-NY) released her first campaign video, it began with her noting, “There are people in Washington who think being different is a threat, that don’t want to see women who look like me challenging the old boys’ club.” She added, “But I’ve got news for them. We’re tired of being ignored. My name is Jackie Gordon and I’m a bit different.”
Ihsanne Leckey (D-MA) introduced herself to Massachusetts voters by saying, “My story isn’t the story of the wealthy white men who run Washington.” She highlighted her experience as a woman, as an immigrant, as a young person of color, and as a person with working class roots, arguing that perspectives of women like her are missing in institutions of political power. In launching her bid for U.S. House in Ohio, former congressional staffer Desiree Tims (D-OH) also problematized the lack of diverse representation in Washington, DC as one among many reasons to support her candidacy. She described the divide between politicians in Washington making backroom deals and members of her community, explaining, “Many of us have never seen this room and the people in this room have never seen us.” The boldness of message from these women candidates reflects a willingness to take on the political status quo instead of seeking admission into it. And while overt emphases on gender and racial identities are more common among Democrats, some Republican women nodded to their comfort with disrupting expectations. Throughout her campaign, Representative Nancy Mace (R-SC) reminded voters that she was the first woman to graduate from The Citadel and, in one of her first advertisements, explained, “For years, I’ve beaten the expectations set by others. ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ You know what I say? To hell with all of that.” Instead of simply trying to meet the often higher standards they face on their paths to electoral success, these women congressional candidates questioned the very standards by which we select our political leaders and suggested alternative values to consider before casting ballots.
Highlighting Distinctly Gendered Experiences
Motherhood represents a specific gendered identity that women candidates have navigated differently over time. Emphasizing maternal credentials can, on one hand, help women to meet voters’ gender expectations related to femininity, compassion, and care. On the other hand, touting motherhood – especially for women with young children – has come with risks that their male counterparts have not faced; most notably, it could raise questions about whether a woman can or should pursue political office while upholding her responsibilities as a mom. While those questions persist, evolving societal norms and new approaches to motherhood in candidate presentation have helped to reframe motherhood as not simply an affirmation of feminine credentials, but instead an identity that brings distinct understanding and motivation to many women’s policymaking and public service.
In 2018, women candidates like Kelda Roys (D-WI) and Zephyr Teachout (D-NY) were especially overt and unapologetic in incorporating their roles as mothers into campaign images and messages. Roys famously released a campaign video where she was breastfeeding her young child, while talking about how her experience as a mother of an infant motivated her to pass legislation to remove BPA from bottles. In an ad where she was shown receiving an ultrasound, a very pregnant Teachout mused about her unborn child, “What does his or her future look like? Do we save our democracy?” She tweeted out the ad with this message: “Being a parent and being in power shouldn’t be in conflict for a woman any more than they are for a man.” Both women tied motherhood to motivation for service, and that theme was evident again among women candidates in 2020. For example, at least three women candidates – Betsy Londrigan (D-IL), Kathy Manning (D-NC), and Beth Van Duyne (R-TX) – described their experiences of having children who overcame health crises as giving them both the perspective and motivation necessary to push for better health care policy. Becky Grossman (D-MA) pointed out to voters that there were just 25 moms of young children in the 116th Congress and, in her first ad, demonstrated her unique ability to understand what it’s like to have to have a talk with her kindergarten-aged son about what to do in the case of a school shooting. She argued, “Until we elect more moms who’ve had this talk, nothing is going to change in Congress.”
Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) alluded to a different talk that she – as a Black mom – has had to have with her sons. In her first television ad, she said, “As a Black mom, I’m sick of having to say, ‘Just make it home safely.’” In these approaches, women candidates offer motherhood as a credential for empathy and understanding, as well as a driver of policy priorities and outcomes.
Using motherhood as an indicator of political and policy motivation is evident among women of both political parties. For example, Representative Ashley Hinson (R-IA) told voters in 2020, “As a mom, I’m driven to secure a better future for my kids and yours.” But Republican women face somewhat different terrain in navigating this role. Republican voters hold more traditional gender role expectations that might create particular hurdles for Republican women. A Republican consultant offers one potential hurdle, noting that stay-at-home mothers are one of the most reliable Republican voting groups and are often most skeptical of women’s ability to balance officeholding with family responsibilities; “If they [stay at home], the automatic question is ‘If this is my life experience, why isn’t it your life experience?” Therefore, Republican women candidates navigate uniquely gendered terrain whereby the accepted gender roles of some of their primary constituents might conflict with the professional roles they are seeking. This – tied more broadly with ideological and religious beliefs about family values among conservatives – might help to explain both how and why many Republican women candidates in 2020 talk about motherhood in ways that more overtly embrace pride in that role.
Representative Hinson’s (R-IA) campaign motto was “Proven Leader. Proud Mom.” Her website featured photos of her with her two school-aged sons, whom she described as motivation for her to “fight for a better community and stronger economy for all Iowa families.” Representative Mary Miller (R-IL) adopted a campaign slogan of “Faith, Family, and Freedom” and introduced herself to voters as mother of seven children. Representative Beth Van Duyne (R-TX) used three words to characterize herself to voters in campaign materials: Christian, conservative, and mother. She described herself as “a single, working-mother” who wants her two children to “be able to grow up safe and proud of our country.” Likewise, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) concluded her biography by noting, “Marjorie believes the best part of her life is being a mother and spending time with her family.” Finally, Renee Swann (R-TX) touted her accomplishments as a mother among those that should be valued in her bid for office. Her campaign materials presented her as a woman who has “raised four men to be great husbands, fathers, and servants of their communities.”
These various approaches toward integrating motherhood into Republican women’s cases for candidacy both assure voters that they have been successful in fulfilling a traditional gender role while simultaneously adding motherhood – and the skills and passion it brings – as another credential that should be valued in its translation into political officeholding. They evidence both similar progress to Democratic women – in featuring young children prominently, embracing single motherhood, and touting motherhood as policy motivation – and sites for partisan difference in how motherhood is both presented and received on the campaign trail.
Meeting Masculine Expectations
The research on gender and campaign strategy has evidenced the dual demands that women candidates face to meet stereotypical expectations of both candidacy, which continue to align most often with men and masculinity, and their gender, which assume alignment with norms of femininity.11 Both Republican and Democratic women navigate these conflicting expectations, albeit with partisan differences also at play. For Republican women, the alignment of their party with notions of toughness and “law and order” might lead voters to perceive them as more likely than their liberal counterparts to meet these stereotypically masculine expectations.
But Republican women candidates in 2020 did not rely on this party cue alone to assure voters that they are tough enough for the job. Many Republican women House candidates presented themselves as “fighters,” especially “conservative fighters,” and emphasized their resilience and toughness. Representative Victoria Spartz (R-IN) was described by a fellow state senator in a May 2020 advertisement titled “Relentless” as “the Iron Lady of the Indiana State Senate,” adding, “She’s not afraid to tackle tough issues.” In the same ad, she reminds voters that she is also a “mom who gets things done.” Likewise, Representative Claudia Tenney (R-NY) combined the imagery of riding a motorcycle with the label of being a “hard-charging single mother of a U.S. marine” to make her toughness case to voters. Other women used images demonstrating their physical strength as corollaries for their drive to be public leaders. For example, Genevieve Collins (R-TX) launched her campaign with an ad titled “Fighter” in which she is described as “tough,” “driven,” and “relentless” while running on a treadmill, doing strength exercises, and sparring with boxing gloves. That symbolism was also used in an ad for Democratic Representative Sharice Davids (D-KS) in 2018 to communicate she would be a “fighter for progress.”
Representative Diana Harshberger (R-TN) positioned herself as “Tennessee tough” and, in an ad titled “Fighter,” she not only describes herself as ready to fight the “radical Left,” but uses the image of her holding a rifle to further communicate her toughness credentials. Conservative candidates have frequently used gun imagery to communicate both toughness and their commitment to Second Amendment rights, and this was common among the Republican women who ran in 2020, with Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Lauren Boebert (R-CO) among the most persistent in presenting themselves carrying and/or shooting guns. An April 2020 campaign video and September 2020 Facebook post from Greene were especially overt in using guns as a show of force against liberal policies and politicians, specifically the freshman women of color members of “The Squad.” Representative Kat Cammack (R-FL) used both masculine language and imagery in making her pitch to voters. In one ad, for example, she explains, “I am done with the Washington wimps that won’t support President Trump,” and argues, “We need fighters with grit.” Cammack ends the ad holding a long gun to further communicate her grit. The symbolism of guns is both ideological and gendered, often used to convey conservative bona fides as well as toughness via a tool of brute force. Their centrality in conservative candidate presentation, and even among some Democratic contenders (e.g. see Alison Lundergan Grimes’ 2014 ad against Senator Mitch McConnell), is not new and their use often reinforces traditional notions of masculinity as the credential by which candidacy should be won.
The balance that some women candidates seek to strike between meeting masculine and feminine expectations is likely no better exemplified than in an ad from Genevieve Collins (R-TX), where she explains that being a “Texas woman” means “you have to be able to shoot, clean, and eat your kill one day, then throw on your dress and work a boardroom the next.”
This contrast is also evident among some women candidates who leveraged military experience as a cue for masculine credentials, while simultaneously offering reminders that they are women. For example, Hillary O’Connor Mueri (D-OH) highlighted in her campaign biography that she was among the first generations of women to fly combat missions in the U.S. Navy, but added, “And when she was back on the carrier and her pilot’s wife was expecting? Hillary knit the baby a sweater.” Other women veterans used both the language and imagery of military battle to describe their more personal and gender-based fights. Kim Olson (D-TX) launched her campaign with an ad titled “Battles,” where she walked down a jetway in her bomber jacket while listing the battles she won to change policy for women to be pilots and to investigate and address sexual misconduct in the military. Claire Russo (D-VA) spoke even more personally in her campaign about the “tough fights” she took on as a soldier, including surviving sexual assault. She pairs this fight with her case to voters, noting, “I have always run toward the fight. Now, I’m running for Congress to take on the fights that matter most to you.” In these and other cases – like when another candidate, Adair Ford Boroughs (D-SC), urged South Carolina voters to “Ma’am up,” women candidates co-opt masculinized rhetoric and imagery for arguably more gender inclusive messages.
Examples like Russo’s of overcoming personal adversity illustrate another way in which women candidates have demonstrated traits like toughness and strength – often more associated with men – in less stereotypically masculine ways. As pollster Celinda Lake has suggested to women candidates, one way for women to communicate strength is by sharing stories about the dragons they have slayed. For some women, especially in the past two election cycles and in the context of #MeToo, those dragons have been sexual and/or domestic abuse. In introducing herself to voters, Michelle de la Isla (D-KS) said, “I understand what it means to fight with grit,” adding, “I lived in poverty, was homeless, survived domestic violence, and beat cancer while struggling to pay the bills. But I never gave up.”
Candace Valenzuela (D-TX) shared her childhood experiences with homelessness and witnessing her mother’s domestic abuse, vowing to run for Congress “so that all of our children have a home.” For Kina Collins (D-IL), the trauma she experienced at seven years old – witnessing a child shot and murdered in front of her home – fueled her fight to end gun violence. Lisa Scheller (R-PA) told voters, “I’ve climbed a few hills” in her introductory campaign video, detailing the obstacles – including opioid addiction – that she overcame in her life while being shown cycling uphill.
Whether in overcoming illness, addiction, trauma, or abuse, women candidates have found ways to communicate toughness in the form or personal and professional resilience. And research backs up their strategy as effective, finding that strength – which is more directly tied to personal character – can be decoupled from toughness – and has surpassed toughness in traits most important to voters.12
Drawing Contrast Between Women
While all women candidates navigate gendered terrain in electoral politics, the discussion and examples above demonstrate that they do not navigate the same gendered terrain. The intersection of party and race, as well as specific characteristics of contest and districts, ensure that women running for office traverse their own gendered paths to success. Likewise, the way in which women engage gender in campaign strategy is far from monolithic and is equally capable of reinforcing gender or racial dynamics that uphold political power rooted in masculinity and whiteness.
In 2020, many Republican women waged a gender strategy based in contrast between them and the progressive women that won congressional office in record numbers in 2018. North Carolina Senate candidate Sandy Smith (R-NC) was one of the most overt in her message, writing on her campaign home page: “Yes, we have the most women ever elected to Congress and the Senate, which is truly a great thing. The problem is that, in many cases, we’ve elected the wrong women. The time is now that we elect the right women.” Alabama House candidate Jessica Taylor (R-AL) vowed to create her own “Conservative Squad” to combat “The Squad” in Congress – freshman Democratic women of color Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) – that she argued “threatens our freedom.” Taylor and three other Republican women candidates who went on to win their elections to the House – Michelle Fischbach (R-MN), Nancy Mace (R-SC), and Beth Van Duyne (R-TX) – pitched themselves as the “Conservative Squad” that stood in opposition to these Democratic women and even set up their own Conservative Squad PAC. All women members of the “Conservative Squad” were white.
Some Republican women candidates used slogans like “Results not Resistance” to contrast the Democratic women who ran and won in 2018, many of whom positioned themselves as part of the resistance against Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Others, who shared racial and/or ethnic backgrounds with members of “The Squad,” characterized themselves more specifically as the “antidote to AOC,” “the Anti-AOC,” and the alternative Muslim refugee to Ilhan Omar.
Beyond these explicit contrasts with members of “The Squad,” Republican women – and men – almost universally used these Democratic women as targets in campaign advertisements and messaging, using their names and photos to cue the socialism, radicalism, and extremism that Republican candidates vowed to combat if elected. While attacks also often targeted Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who has much more direct control of the party’s House agenda, the gendered and racialized dynamics at play in attacks on freshman women of color are important to note. Republican candidates’ explicit targeting of these women as “extreme” or “threats” is a tactic not only effective due to their ideological positions; as women representing communities – racial and ethnic (Ocasio-Cortez is Latina, Tlaib is Palestinean-American, and Omar and Pressley are Black), religious (Tlaib and Omar are the first Muslim women in Congress), and even generational (Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest woman in Congress) – that have been marginalized from power and characterized as at the least unfit and at the worst dangerous, they are being used as symbols of a direct challenge to the white, male status quo. This strategy proved electorally successful for many Republicans in the 2020 election, including 16 of 19 Republican women who won House seats for the first time last year using messages or images in campaign output that invoked one or more members of “The Squad.” But these strategies do not represent progress when it comes to disrupting sexist and racist tropes that have worked against women’s political empowerment. Instead, they maintain and capitalize upon gender, racial, and intersectional stereotypes that create more difficult – and even dangerous – conditions for women of color who run for and serve in elected office.
Those conditions among women officeholders were made evident just months before Election Day, when Representative Ted Yoho’s (R-TX) attack of Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in a Capitol hallway led women – including Ocasio-Cortez – to share their experiences of sexism and racism within Congress on the House floor. The statements of women officeholders made clear that the gendered and intersectional biases that are perpetuated on the campaign trail persist in our political institutions.