Alison Cummins and Lanethea Mathews-Schultz
The record numbers of women who ran for and won elective office in the 2018 “Year of the Woman” helped to renew scholarly interest in the role of gender and American electoral politics. Following closely on the heels of the Kavanaugh hearings, #MeToo, and the Women’s March, the 2018 elections were characterized by heightened attention to women running as women and to women’s and gender-related issues. About one-half of women running for federal office in 2018 campaigned on a message of women’s rights, including issues linked to reproductive rights, equal pay, paid parental leave, expanding affordable healthcare, and ending gender violence. Women running in statewide races were somewhat less likely to emphasize women’s rights in their campaign messages, but many stressed their own identities as mothers, grandmothers, and daughters and linked their campaigns to the health and wellbeing of families. Female candidates’ campaign messages were echoed by what voters had to say at the exit polls on Election Day. Close to 80% of voters, including both men and women, agreed that it is important to elect women to public office—perhaps reflecting a rare point of consensus in an otherwise polarized political environment. More than one-half of all voters also indicated that sexual harassment is a serious problem facing our nation.
This collection of papers, authored by undergraduate students at Muhlenberg College in the Spring of 2019, considers how women’s electoral successes and challenges in 2018 are both cause and consequence of the increased saliency of gender and of women’s and gender-related issues in electoral politics. Collectively, the authors include students in the sophomore through senior year and represent a wide variety of disciplinary backgrounds and expertise, with majors ranging from political science to English to psychology to media and communication. Our diversity made this project an especially rewarding one. We offer this research, not as experts, but rather in the spirit of open inquiry, scholarly dialogue, and moving the conversation forward. We view our work as very much “in progress,” and with that in mind, we welcome feedback and dialogue (please send all comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org).
One important note: the authors in this book use the terms “gender” and “sex” in various and sometimes interchangeable ways. The fluidity of these terms makes it difficult to impose a universal “standard” even in a single collection of research papers; our approach is to recognize the fluidity of shifting terms and concepts as we use them.
Overview of the Book
Recent research suggests that gender matters little in an electoral environment defined by intense partisan polarization (Hayes and Lawless 2016); organized into four parts, each addressing different aspects of the electoral process, the research contained in this book both confirms and significantly revises this conventional wisdom.
In Part 1, Emma Whittum examines recent scholarship on political ambition, making sense of the multiple factors that shape individuals’ propensity to become political candidates. Whittum contextualizes her examination of political ambition alongside an in-depth interview of Susan Wild, one of the “fabulous four” women elected from the state of Pennsylvania in 2018 for the US House of Representatives–prior to 2018, no women (that’s zero) represented the state in federal office.
Women’s experiences as candidates in the 2018 elections confirm that when women run, they win–women are competitive candidates, attract significant fundraising dollars, and are supported by voters. But did women in 2018 campaign differently? This question is at the heart of Peter Carroll’s chapter, “Presenting the Past,” which considers the complicated intersections of gender stereotypes and political campaigns, examining whether or not women and men campaign around personal histories and previous occupations in what could be called “gendered” ways. He finds, tentatively, that women running for office in 2018 were less likely to talk about their personal histories and previous occupations when compared to men running for office (even when controlling for party).
Maye-gan Brown’s chapter “Women Candidates and the Money that Gets in Their Way,” examines patterns of campaign finance in 2018. She finds that women raised a greater share of campaign dollars from small individual contributions when compared to men; similarly, Democratic candidates raised a greater proportion of overall campaign finances from small donations. While women running for office in 2018 raised just as much, and in many cases, more when compared to men, the sources of campaign funds differed in potentially significant ways. Brown provides an important roadmap for future research to inquire about the ways that gender, and gender stereotypes, influence campaign financing–and perhaps also messaging about campaign financing.
Finally in Part 1, Lauren Fisher considers gender and rhetoric in 2018 senatorial debates, a fascinating look at how candidates adopt gendered debate styles. Examining 20 senatorial debates, she finds that a majority of candidates–both women and men–were more likely to adopt masculine debate styles, regardless of candidate sex, opponent sex, or party. Fisher’s research is important in compelling future studies to examine perceived and real advantages and disadvantages that may be linked to gender performances, as well as voters’ reactions to candidates’ gender performances. This is especially the case to the extent that gender performances are linked to voters’ expectations of political leadership.
In Part II, the authors tackle important questions about the role of emergent social media communication technologies, examining how candidates used the media and, in turn, how media shaped campaigns in 2018. Examining candidates’ use of Facebook, Lauren Wohlgemuth finds that with just a few interesting exceptions all candidates in competitive 2018 House races used Facebook. Women candidates were slightly more prolific in posting campaign messages on Facebook when compared to men. She finds more significant differences in the use of Facebook by party; Democrats posted more frequently in the month leading up to Election Day compared to Republicans. While observed differences in Facebook use do not seem linked in obvious ways to election outcomes, the more important observation in Wohlgemuth’s research is the increased frequency of social media use, which is quickly outpacing traditional forms of campaign messaging, most notably TV ads.
Siobhan McKenna examines how Republican candidates used Twitter to mediate their relationships to President Trump–an interesting examination of how the party in power responds to a controversial president. Did Republican House candidates in 2018 distance themselves from Trump? Or, conversely, did Republican House candidates align themselves with Trump? To answer this question, McKenna compiles data from Republican candidates’ Twitter feeds, considering candidates from districts considered safe Republican, lean Republican, and vulnerable Republican. She finds variation in the frequency with which Republican candidates publicly supported, disavowed, or attempted to remain neutral in their relationship with the president.
Two additional chapters in Part II consider the role of the media in shaping campaigns and, potentially, election outcomes. Monique Beaupre examines media coverage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)–who, after a surprising primary win, became the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Beaupre reopens research on the extent to which sexism and racism shape media coverage by examining media coverage of AOC during her House campaign and her first two weeks in Congress. While she does not find evidence of either overt sexism or overt racism in shaping media coverage, she does find that in the lead up to Election Day, coverage of AOC overwhelmingly focused on her novelty as a candidate and the fact that she is a woman of color, grouping her with other women of color running in 2018. After Election Day, AOC received significantly more media coverage than similar freshman in Congress; coverage shifted to focus more on AOC’s policy positions and less on her role as a woman-of-color breaking ground in electoral politics.
Lauren Greenwald is similarly interested in media coverage; but, rather than focus on candidates or campaigns, Greenwald focuses more generally on competing narratives of the Ford-Kavanaugh hearings as this coverage both shaped and reflected partisan views. Greenwald finds subtle but important differences in the ways that Fox News and MSNBC constructed narratives and frames in covering issues at the center of the Kavanaugh hearings, positioning future research to examine how media coverage of critical events shapes electoral outcomes.
Part III examines voters and voter behavior in 2018. Morgan McDevitt considers the extent to which Republican women voted for Democrats in the 2018 elections, putting this data into a longer historical view. At the intersection of the gender gap (women overall tend to be more liberal when compared to men) and increasing partisan polarization, Republican women’s willingness to vote for Democratic candidates at key electoral moments highlights the complex intersections of gender identity, political issues, and partisan identity.
Darcy Furlong’s interest concerns intersections of gender identity, religious affiliation, and voting behavior. She finds important trends in the increasing percentage of voters who are religiously unaffiliated, as well as important changes in patterns of partisan change among Catholic voters, especially Catholic women voters. As young voters are more likely to be unaffiliated with a religion, Furlong’s research suggests that significant change in the role of religion in electoral politics is looming on the horizon.
The final section, Part IV, considers long term implications of the 2018 Year of the Woman elections. The 116th Congress includes more than 100 women in the House of Representatives, surpassing the previous record of 84 in the 115th. Twelve women were elected to the Senate; including the 10 women currently serving, the new Senate now includes 22 female Senators. Across the states, 9 women were elected governors (the previous number was 6). Many of these women are firsts in other ways–including the first Native American and Muslim women and the youngest woman ever elected to the House (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is 29). The Political Year of the Woman reaches across racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, and religious lines.
In other ways, however, the gains of the 2018 Year of the Woman have been uneven. As Audrey Quinn shows, although Democratic women continue to make inroads into elected office, gains have been less significant for Republican women. Using a series of intriguing maps, Quinn shows that there is both a partisan, and a geographic, explanations behind patterns of women’s representation in the US Senate. Regional cultural differences, combined with gender gaps in ideology between women and men, and voters’ propensity to cross party lines create a complex, multi-layered window for understanding Republican women’s presence in (and absence from) elected office.
The women of the 116th Congress are ideologically diverse, cautioning observers from assuming that newly elected women share a monolithic outlook on public policy. This is made clear by Rachel Szachara’s careful examination of NOMINATE scores of congressional Democrats. Szachara compiles ideological scores for all newly elected Democrats overtime, from 1992 through 2018, in an effort to understand ideological change within the Democratic party in Congress. She finds that Democratic women elected to Congress have become increasingly ideologically diverse over time and, as a group, Democratic women are more ideologically diverse compared to Democratic men in Congress.
Increasing women’s representation is an important step toward building a more inclusive, and more representative, democracy. Newly elected female officeholders may bring fresh perspectives to American elective institutions, a reflection of their diverse routes to political office which from careers as far ranging as teachers, journalists, veterans, community organizers, farmers, lawyers, actors, and small business owners. Among the most significant consequence of the 2018 elections, as Emma Lewis’s chapter suggests, is the potential for female candidates and officeholders to inspire more women, especially young women, to get involved in politics. In signaling that elections are no longer a “man’s game,” female candidates and officeholders make it possible for young women to see themselves as political actors, to develop their own political interest, and perhaps to imagine a future in which they become candidates and officeholders themselves.
It is safe to say that the pages that follow generate far more questions than answers. More importantly, our efforts to understand how gender shaped, and was shaped by, the 2018 Year of the Woman elections provided a vehicle for bolstering our own political efficacy as meaningful participants in the electoral arena (in this way, Lewis’s conclusions could equally apply to our collective experiences as students in PSC 389).
Hayes, Danny and Jennifer Lawless. 2016. Women on the Run: Gender, Media, and Political Campaigns in a Polarized Era. Cambridge University Press.