Gender issues in focus in US election campaign

2016-10-13 10:32

The upcoming US election will go down in history. For the first time ever, a woman has a realistic chance of winning. Her only true opponent is a candidate known for his repeated racist and sexist remarks. US gender researchers are trying to understand what is happening.

‘What is surprising me the most? The whole campaign is surprising from start to finish,’ says Diana O’Brien, assistant professor of political science at Indiana University.

Donald Trump has referred to women he does not like as fat pigs. He has said that Muslims should be denied entry into the country and has described Mexicans as murderers and rapists. Many people have dropped their support for Trump in the wake of Washington Post’s release of a video in which the candidate makes a series of vulgar remarks.

However, Trump’s racist and sexist demeanour seems to appeal to a category of voters who feel insecure about their role in US society, according to Diana O’Brien. With only a few weeks to go before the election, it remains unclear exactly what Trump wants to achieve in terms of concrete policy measures, she continues.

‘Trump is an outsider and hard to place, but his vice president, Mike Pence, is very, very conservative,’ she says.

The Republicans revised their strategy

Prior to the Republican Party’s nomination of Trump, most researchers could never have imagined Trump as a presidential candidate, according to Diana O’Brien. After the election in 2012, the Republicans analysed their defeat and developed a plan for a comeback. The party decided to put less focus on its fight against same-sex marriages and to become better at reaching out to the Hispanic voters.

‘No one could have predicted a Trump candidate,’ says Diana O’Brien.

Karen Beckwith

Karen Beckwith

Also Karen Beckwith, professor and Chair of Political Science at Case Western Reserve University with a special interest in gender and politics, is puzzled.

‘It’s truly remarkable that the Republicans have chosen a man with a complete lack of experience at any political level. He has caused a major disruption in the party,’ she says.

Described as cold and unreliable

In contrast to the Republican candidate, Hillary Clinton’s political career started decades ago. In an interview with CNS News, the reporter asked her if she might even have ’too much experience’. That is remarkable, according to Karen Beckwith.

‘She is probably the first candidate ever to be criticised for being too well prepared,’ she says.

Previous research shows that female politicians tend to be scrutinised harder than men. Whether this is true in the case of Hillary Clinton is too early to say, according to the researchers. This is something that needs to be analysed further, they say, but both Karen Beckwith and Diana O’Brien sense a pattern. Clinton has been described as cold, unlikable and unreliable. ‘I’m not sure we expect the same ”warmth” from a man. She is expected to be likeable, warm, a grandmother and qualified as president, all at the same time,’ says Diana O’Brien.

A female president – an important symbol

In the primary elections, Clinton met strong resistance from her opponent Bernie Sanders. The support for Sanders was particularly strong among young voters thirsting for radical change in the country’s political landscape. Clinton has been criticised for having too close ties with Wall Street, and the peace movement feel she is too eager to jump to military solutions. Yet regardless of what one may think about her political views, it would mean a lot to have a woman as president of the United States, according to Diana O´Brien.

‘Clinton is not the end of sexism just like Obama is not the end of racism, but symbolically, both are important. A woman president would signal that women deserve to be in the public sphere. We may even see an increased interest in politics among women and girls, she says.

Clinton has promised that if she wins the election, for the first time ever over half of the members of the Cabinet will be women. A Clinton win would also be of great symbolic significance, says Diana O’Brien. The voter turnout is typically slightly higher among women than men, but men dominate all other levels of the US political system all the way from grass root campaign workers to the various minister posts. If Clinton wins the election, she will become the 45th, but first female, president of the United States. However, already her nomination was a historic moment, according to Karen Beckwith.

‘During this campaign it has been normalised to listen to a woman talking publicly about politics and campaigning for the presidency,’ she says.

Parental leave in focus

From a gender perspective, several aspects of the upcoming US election are of particular interest. For example, the gap between how women and men say they will cast their votes has never been bigger. Trump has much stronger support among men than women. Another observation is that gender and gender equality issues have received more attention than in previous elections.

‘Clinton has been able to profile these issues because of her opponent,’ says Diana O’Brien.

Also Trump has had to deal with gender and gender equality to some extent, she continues.

‘They both talk about parental leave and that’s tremendously important.’

Regardless of who wins the election on 9 November, Karen Beckwith is certain that Trump’s campaign will leave permanent marks on American society.

‘We have never before seen a candidate saying these things about women or about foreign citizens and leaders. He is encouraging anti-democratic groups and we see an upsurge for the white supremacist movement,’ she says.

Author Charlie Olofsson
Photo The main image: Krassotkin , Gage Skidmore (Donald Trump), Gage Skidmore (Hillary Clinton), via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0.
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