Dos and Don’ts on the Campaign Trail

With more women in elective office than ever before, running as a female candidate is no longer as difficult as it was. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Ana Marie Cox

The first issue of <i>In These Times</i>.
Women in American politics are doing better than ever—but that’s still not very good. At last count, women made up a majority of U.S. citizens, outnumbering men by at least 6 million. It will surprise no one that this majority is not reflected at any level of government.

On Capitol Hill, there are 13 female senators, and women represent 60 out of 435 congressional districts. Five women serve as state governors, and 83 more—27.4 percent total—hold a statewide elective office of some sort. Things are a bit better in state legislatures; 22.6 percent of all state representatives are women.

These not-quite-promising statistics are compounded by a sense among those who study such things that the recent rate of progress may have declined. Since 1993, women’s representation in Congress has jumped about a percentage point per cycle, and the pattern for statewide elective office is similar. But the percentage of women in state legislatures, though the highest of any level, actually decreased by a point in the 2000 elections before rebounding this year. “There’s no question there’s been progress,” says Carol Nackenoff, a professor of political science at Swarthmore College, “but the institutions haven’t changed, so I worry.”

Today, one can no longer assume that a man running against a woman is the odds-on favorite: In 2000, every woman that ran for a Senate seat won it. (Of course, there were only five.) “The problem seems to be one of recruitment,” says Susan J. Carroll, who runs Rutgers University’s Center on American Women in Politics. “The opportunities are there, but if no one’s there to recruit women candidates, then what do you do?” The question of why so few women want to run for office—“the pipeline problem,” as researchers call it—has turned out to be much more important than feminist pioneers may have foreseen.

Several groups—both partisan and independent—have training programs set up to address the issue. The Women’s Campaign School at Yale offers courses in fundraising, media strategy and public speaking to women from around the world, and both the Democratic and Republican national parties have their own campaign schools. The White House Project is a nonpartisan group devoted to electing a female president; they have both a research arm and a recruitment and training program. The schools are all over, but even the White House Project, with its broad reach, has trouble filling seats.

One reason for women’s reluctance to run may be that women perceive—correctly—that running for office places distinct boundaries on what you can do, say, maybe even believe. Female candidates, no matter what their ideological background, have a very narrow range of choices in behavior, relationships, and even appearance to select from should they want to succeed. Ron Faucheux, editor of Campaigns and Elections magazine, points out that for both men and women, the list of “campaign Dos and Don’ts” is much longer than it was 10 or 15 years ago. But Cathy Allen, the Democratic campaign consultant who helped Maria Cantwell eke out her Senate victory last year in Washington, says, “Whatever the rules are for men, there are more for women.”

A look at the rules illuminates some of the most common perceptions and stereotypes about female candidates. Whether we realize it or not, these rules help determine who gets elected—and who runs at all. Women considering elected office face structural obstacles that simply don’t exist for men, and these obstacles, combined with the public’s stubborn inability to judge women on the same terms as men, keep the candidate pool at an unhealthy low. Discussions with journalists, campaign consultants, candidates and academics reveal just a few Dos and Don’ts:

Do conform to certain rules of appearance. The regulations surrounding a woman’s appearance are the most visible indicator of how female candidates are judged differently than men. Says Rutger’s Carroll: “I think everything is harder for women. Men running for office can vary widely, whereas women have a very narrow range of things that are tolerated in terms of behavior, dress, a lot of things.” For example, she says, “Clearly, every political woman has a red suit—but it better be a suit.”

Other visual markers are less specific, but just as prevalent: To judge by the headshots of female representatives, for instance, the range of acceptable hairstyles for women in Congress seems to be limited to two: a conservative bob, and a Florence-Henderson-esque short ’do. A recent study by The White House Project bears out just how closely audiences judge a woman’s appearance: An analysis of a focus group’s reactions to women’s campaign ads showed that it is much more important for women to be shown in formal settings and dressed in business attire than it is for men.

Don’t think being famous will help. Kathleen Taylor, the political director of the National Federation of Republican Women, points out, “Men can win office with popularity or celebrity, without prior political experience.” Look no further than actors Ronald Reagan and Tennessee Republican Sen. Fred Thompson (who lists his film roles on his Senate Web page) or former football players Steve Largent and J.C. Watts, both Republican congressmen from Oklahoma.

It’s difficult to say just how these examples affect women’s perceptions of themselves as candidates, but it’s clear that men seem to think they are qualified to run the country even if all they’ve done is memorize a few things. (Lines, plays, legislation—what’s the difference, right?) Women, on the other hand, can be just as successful (in careers that are bit more demanding, even), but never seem to think of running for office at all. Tellingly, studies by the Rutgers center show that women in state legislative office are more likely than men to hold a graduate degree and to be over age 50—a statistic that suggests the higher standard of experience the public needs before voting for a woman.

Do provide babysitters. This isn’t a suggestion for once a female candidate is elected, it’s a very serious observation about the campaign itself from former Newt Gingrich fundraiser and campaign strategist Nancy Bocskor (who, for the record, opposes federally funded childcare for working women). Political parties used to rely on armies of stay-at-home wives for their envelope-stuffing and yard-sign pegging—the nitty-gritty of publicity that’s just as important as a sexy television ad. That army shipped out for 9-to-5 jobs a long time ago. Says Bocskor, “Now we ask for smaller bites of time. I have a TV and VCR so that they can bring their kids, and I have some teen-agers to watch them.”

For a female candidate, providing a space for politically active women to work together can help build a network of future contacts and, dare we dream it, future candidates. Bocskor believes that getting more women in office won’t happen unless there are women active in politics, period, and making volunteer campaign work more attractive to women is a step in the right direction.

Do have a Web site. Women support women who are running for office, and women give online. A study by the Center for Responsive Politics found that women, especially Democrats, are much more likely to give to other women than to men: In 1996, female Democratic candidates got 43 percent of their large donations from women. The online part of the equation will only become more important with campaign finance reform. According to Becki Donatelli of the Internet consulting firm Campaign Solutions, right now men’s online donations to specific candidates vastly outweigh women’s, by a ratio of 4-to-1. But under the reformed contribution guidelines, it’s likely that the real pressure in elections will come from issue-oriented groups. For issue and ideological groups, the gender gap in donations is reversed: Women give four times as much as men. This may not translate into greater support from women for specific candidates, but it does suggest that women use Web sites to investigate issues they care about, and give their money accordingly.

Do support the death penalty … or find another way to prove you’re tough. It’s not pretty, but it’s true: Women need to overcome the perception that they’re “too compassionate.” It’s ironic, says Wilson, because “kitchen table issues—health care, education—are in ascendance, but women do well when they talk tough about crime.”

Carroll says that ardent capital-punishment supporter and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein “is the prime example” of how women have to look tough on one issue in order to succeed on other issues where they might otherwise appear too soft. “It’s never been an issue for her that she’s been weak on crime,” Carroll says. “So she was able to lead the Senate to ban assault weapons, because no one ever thought she was weak on crime.”

Wilson says that women don’t just need to talk tough, they—still—actually need to be tougher than men: “When women speak in an ad, they immediately have to project something very active. You have use language that’s a little tougher: ‘I fought for something, I cracked down on something.’”

With the war on terrorism raising the bar on macho for male candidates, one wonders what this higher toughness standard will do to female candidates: Are we ready for women to start talking about how they, for example, “massacred legislation” or “nuked an opponent”?

Do have an opinion about abortion. It’s true—and not particularly surprising—that most women in elective office are pro-choice. A report by the Rutgers center on women and men in state legislatures found that 94 percent of elected female Democrats and 58 percent of elected female Republicans supported Roe v. Wade. It doesn’t matter if they’re running for district attorney or dog-catcher, says Carroll, “I don’t think a woman can run for office and not get asked about abortion, it doesn’t matter what she’s running for. A man can run for office his entire life and not get asked about abortion.”

Do hide your husband. Not only did the Rutgers state legislature study show that, nationwide, female state legislators are far less likely than their male counterparts to be married (66 percent of women were married, as opposed to 87 percent of men), but women who are married have to keep their husbands in the background. In contrast, campaign consultants say that the wives of male candidates can be enormously effective campaigners. Says Cathy Allen, “Political wives are more and more given campaign roles. She has issues, and she has to be able to speak on them and what she’s likely to do if he’s elected.” But, cautions Allen, “You can’t be Hillary Clinton, go out and craft an entire health care plan. That still scares the bejeesus out of people.”

Somewhat ironically, though, most analysts see the role of political husband as being far more restricted than that of a political wife. He has to be supportive without being too visible, he has to recede without appearing to be dominated by his wife. He should be in the family photo, but he shouldn’t be on the campaign trail.

Why? Says one political insider, when a husband and wife stand in front of a crowd, it’s all-too-easy for people to assume that it’s the man who’s really in control—no matter whose name is on the banner over their heads. A good negative example, says this source, is the primary campaign mounted by Deborah Senn against Maria Cantwell: “The worst thing she did was to bring her husband” to meetings with members of the press. “He sat behind her,” she says; “he passed her notes.”

There’s another reason for keeping husbands off-stage: His scandals—particularly economic ones—will become hers. Whether it’s Geraldine Ferrarro fighting off accusations that her husband had mob connections or Republican Jeanine Pirro having to distance herself from her spouse’s income-tax evasion, women can’t convincingly argue that they have an independent financial life. “For women, their husband’s finances are assumed to be theirs,” Carroll says. “Any issues about the finances of the husband, it becomes an issue for the wife. It doesn’t always happen the other way.”

Don’t cry. Bill Clinton made “feeling your pain” a campaign plus. But, says Allen, “a woman can’t cry, but a man can: It shows that he’s sensitive but that she’s a wimp.” People still talk about Pat Schroeder’s tearful appearance when she spoke about even thinking about running for president in 1988, Allen points out, but today, “any number of men are quivering at the microphone.”

Don’t go negative. Jo Freeman, author of A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics, says that negative campaigning doesn’t work for women. “The classic example within memory is the race between Geraldine Ferrarro and Elizabeth Holtzman” in New York in 1992, says Freeman. Holtzman ran such a negative campaign against Ferraro (she repeated those rumors about mob connections), Freeman recounts, that “not only did she lose the senate race—to Alfonse D’Amato—she lost re-election for New York City comptroller the next year.”

Freeman thinks negative campaigning boomerangs on women because “women have traditionally been associated with cleaner politics, [and] when they don’t act clean, it becomes a negative image. You know, a man who sleeps around is a man who sleeps around, a woman who sleeps around is a slut … it’s like that but for campaigning.”

So what are we to do about the Dos and Don’ts? A 2000 study by The White House Project found that the absence of large numbers of women in politics could become a self-fulfilling prophesy: Young women say they aren’t likely to run for office because they don’t see very many women already there, a pattern of regression that could turn the current plateau into a cliff. To make matters worse, young women—correctly, it turns out—perceive politics as the province of a very narrow slice of the American public … meaning the rules that keep women in line are the same rules that prevent them from being able to imagine themselves as candidates.

The Dos and Don’ts of campaigning, after all, are almost all about appearances: The appearance of being tough on crime, the appearance of not being able to handle the pressure of a political position. Young people see the emphasis on appearance and assume that even if they could fit into the tight mold of a candidate, why bother? But when the White House Project’s interviewers asked young women about issues, and when they were able to make the connection between the issues they care about and the actions politicians take (as opposed to how they look taking them), interest in a political career grew substantially.

Right now, the rules of politics may get a woman elected, but following them too closely almost certainly means there will be fewer women to follow. Only by allowing female candidates to violate the Dos and Don’ts of campaigning will we begin to widen the spectrum of positions available to women. The message we should send to women running for office? When someone tells you something is a Do, Don’t.

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Ana Marie Cox is the brains behind Wonkette, one of the most popular political blogs on the web. She is also the former editor of the dearly departed suck​.com and has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mother Jones, Wired and Spin.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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