Tag Archives: gender

Karrin Vasby Anderson – The Female Presidentiality Paradox

This is a guest post by Karrin Vasby Anderson, Professor of Communication Studies at Colorado State University

When Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, he presided over what some have termed the biggest political upset in U.S. history. With the advantage of hindsight, pundits and experts proffered myriad reasons for Clinton’s failure: economic insecurity, white backlash against the first black president, a generalized distrust in government, the dubious, eleventh-hour resurrection of the Clinton email story by the director of the FBI, and, of course, alleged failures of the Clinton campaign. Those who regarded the outcome as a strategic (rather than systemic) failure were quick to point out Clinton’s ostensible liabilities: a long, public career peppered by real and manufactured scandals, her contentious relationship with the press, her underwhelming presence on the stump, and—perhaps most damaging—her status as the quintessential political insider in a year of change.

Cognizant of the electoral mood in September of 2015, Clinton attempted to convince John Dickerson, host of the CBS News program Face the Nation, that her gender made her the outsider, saying, “I cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president.” Dickerson demurred, and his response is emblematic of a broader reluctance to acknowledge the ways in which women presidential candidates are unique—and uniquely challenged—in presidential campaign culture. Shortly after Clinton’s defeat, lists of Democratic presidential prospects for 2020 named women such as Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris as early favorites, indicating the widespread belief that gender doesn’t really hamper anyone’s bid for the U.S. presidency.

As a citizen and voter, I’d like to believe that, but as a scholar, I’ve come to another conclusion—not that Clinton was the wrong woman for the presidency in 2016, but that every woman is the wrong woman, and will be until cultural understanding of the presidency changes. Clinton was constrained by what I call the “female presidentiality paradox,” in which any electable woman presidential candidate is simultaneously unelectable in a “change” campaign. The effect is intensified when the change endorsed by electors is a reactionary, rather than a progressive, change. Consequently, although scholars and strategists seek to uncover the rhetorical formula which finally will propel a woman into the office of the U.S. presidency, the more urgent work is targeting the beliefs and behaviors of citizens rather than the strategies of candidates.

Clinton’s loss to Trump was a startling political defeat, but it wasn’t her first. After being the first woman to be the frontrunner for a major-party nomination in 2008, Clinton lost the Democratic presidential nomination to relative political newcomer Barack Obama. She responded by serving as his Secretary of State, a move that bolstered her foreign policy credentials and positioned her for a second presidential run in 2016. Although Clinton corrected many of the shortcomings of her 2008 primary campaign, raised a formidable campaign war chest, secured the support of the Democratic party elite, and was hailed by President Obama as the most qualified candidate ever to run for the office, she nearly came up short again, this time to Bernie Sanders—a dynamic but relatively ineffectual U.S. Senator who was not even a member of the Democratic party. Her victory in the primaries was short-lived, however, vanquished by a candidate who claimed the role of outsider despite his normative race, gender, sexual orientation, and personal wealth. In all three cases, Clinton was positioned as the elite political insider running against agents of change. Her defeats were read by many pundits and journalists not as repudiations of her gender but as a rejection of “politics as usual.”

What that narrative ignores is the paradox facing all female presidential candidates. In an examination of the 2016 Democratic primary, forthcoming in the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs, I theorized the “first-timer/frontrunner double bind,” in which male presidential “first-timers” (such as Trump, Sanders, and Obama) can be viewed as both outsiders and credible leaders. Conversely, female “first-timers” historically have been viewed as pioneers with symbolic appeal rather than political strength. To be taken seriously as presidential candidates, women politicians must amass significant political experience, party support, and campaign funds. Once they do that, their political strength is portrayed as anti-democratic entitlement and their presidential aspirations as a manic desire for power.

The double bind that was a challenge for Clinton to overcome in the 2016 primary became a full-blown paradox during the general election, one that begins to explain why, according to Time, Clinton’s “campaign organization, the data, the polling, all the analytics—none of it worked on Election Day.” I contend that the factors that cast Clinton as a credible presidential candidate simultaneously disqualified her in a “change” campaign. Her electability made her unelectable.

At first glance, this does not seem like a particularly gendered phenomenon, but in the realm of U.S. presidentiality the dynamic is unique to women candidates. Although over ninety percent of U.S. voters report willingness to vote for a (hypothetical) qualified female presidential candidate, only Hillary Clinton has been able to garner a major party nomination, a feat she accomplished only after amassing an unprecedented breadth of political experience. Clinton’s two primary campaigns and one general election defeat illustrate the female presidentiality paradox quite plainly. To demonstrate your electability, you must become that which ultimately will make you unelectable in a “change” campaign: a well-connected political insider with decades of political experience.

In 2016, the effects of the female presidentiality paradox were exacerbated by the type of political change endorsed by the Trump voters. Although Trump’s victory was regarded by many pundits as evidence of the country’s anti-government mood, Trump also functioned as a personification of the reactionary backlash against the nation’s first black president and first female presidential frontrunner. The “change” sought by his supporters was a reinstatement of white, male hegemonic presidentiality rather than further challenge to that centuries-old standard. In that climate, the more credible a woman is as a presidential candidate, the more threatening she is.

Because the female presidentiality paradox will continue to be a feature of campaign culture whenever women launch significant bids for major-party nominations, scholars and strategists should acknowledge its existence and seek to understand its rhetorical dynamics. Clinton’s experiences in two campaign cycles suggest that this paradox is a constraint that cannot be overcome by candidate competence alone, since, for women, electability appears to breed contemp. When asked, as a political communication scholar, what women candidates can do to be received more favorably, I am increasingly convinced that the answer to that question is “Nothing. There is literally nothing that women have not tried in their 100+ year quest for the Oval Office.” The problem lies with the culture rather than with the candidates.

Karrin Vasby Anderson, PhD (@KVAnderson) is Professor of Communication Studies at Colorado State University and co-author of the book Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture. This post contains excerpts from “Every Woman is the Wrong Woman: The Female Presidentiality Paradox,” published in Women’s Studies in Communication and “Presidential Pioneer or Campaign Queen?: Hillary Clinton and the First-Timer/Frontrunner Double Bind,” forthcoming in Rhetoric & Public Affairs.

Farida Jalalzai – Gender, Presidencies, and Prime Ministerships in Europe

Farida Jalalzai is an Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis

Farida Jalazai

Women presidents and prime ministers are increasingly capturing the public’s imagination. We are especially intrigued by the fact that a woman has never been president of the U.S. but that women have held presidencies in places where women as a whole seem to enjoy fewer opportunities such as Pakistan and Liberia. In contrast, we might not be surprised that the greatest quantities of women executives have ascended in Europe. When accounting for paths and powers, however, how much progress have women really made in this region? This is the subject of my new article published in the International Political Science Review. “Gender, Presidencies, and Prime Ministerships in Europe: Are Women Gaining Ground?”

We might intuitively expect women in Europe to have made significant strides in executive office holding, given the more favorable political, cultural, and social conditions women face. To be sure, women have gained top executive offices in nearly half of all European countries, indicating that they have made substantial inroads. Perhaps more surprisingly, Europe lacked women presidents and prime ministers until the late 1970s (nearly two decades after Asian women ascended). Based on my analysis of the most up to date numbers (from January 2015) 42 women have gained power as executives in Europe. In fact, European cases account for 43% of the entire sample of women leaders (98 in total worldwide when examining autonomous countries). The data I collected for this article initially only went from 1960 through 2010. At that time, Europe only had 32 women executives. Five years later, this number increased by another 10! Europe also increased its global share of women leaders (from 41% to 43%). It is, therefore, undeniable that women in Europe have made substantial inroads in executive politics, at least when examining quantities alone.

Readers of this blog, however, know full well that not all executives are created equal and that numbers can only tell part of the story. Most European countries are consensus systems. Consensus systems feature more inclusive, negotiated, and conciliated decision making. In contrast, majoritarian ones involve more exclusive, antagonistic, and competitive governance. For the latter, they rely on appointment to gain power and enjoy less autonomy and security in these positions than would a president in a presidential system (like the United States) or semi-presidential one (like France).

Leadership traits in consensus systems correspond to prevailing feminine stereotypes; we should therefore expect more women executives to arise in Europe. Most European states utilize parliamentary systems, where prime ministers govern with cabinets. Positive perceptions of women’s abilities to negotiate and collaborate aid women in their pursuit of executive office. Western European executives lead within more consensus structures than do their Eastern counterparts. Several women, including Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, have entered power as prime ministers of parliamentary systems.

Dual executive arrangements (where both a president and prime ministers hold office) may indicate executive dependence and power fragmentation. Institutional arrangements simultaneously aid women’s incorporation as political leaders, but stymie women’s progress given their more restricted and collectively based authority. Following the transition from Soviet rule, several Eastern European countries invested presidents with powers far surpassing those of prime ministers. Eastern European women, however, fail to obtain dominant presidential posts since their profile involves masculine stereotypes. Substantial portions hold relatively weak authority as prime ministers under more dominant presidents (such as former PM Julia Tymoshenko of the Ukraine). Women face the most durable glass ceilings in obtaining the most dominant presidencies. To date, there has yet to be a dominant female president of a European country in France or in Eastern Europe, where such presidencies are common.

Women have made important strides in attaining executive office in Europe. At the same time, there are clear limitations. Women still are mainly relegated to weaker positions such as more symbolic presidencies or hold prime ministerships in consensus systems. This does not mean that women don’t lead in a diverse array of systems in Europe, some of which affording substantial. One need not be hard pressed to identify that one of the most powerful and visible women in the world is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany who has now held power for ten years. At the same time, Merkel’s case is actually the exception for women and not the rule. The types of positions and executive institutions common in this Europe are also the very ones that correspond with “feminine” stereotypes, which helps explain why more women have gained a foothold here.

Beyond political institutions political pipeline shapes women’s access to executive positions. Women’s rise in legislative institutions in the 1990s may partly explain women’s gains in presidencies and prime ministerships in the 2000s. Women executives often obtain extensive legislative experience before entering office, though they also regularly first access politics through activist movements. Such combined experiences appear unique to women. While activism offers important opportunities to women in Eastern Europe, it may also constitute an additional stage in the path to power that men do not need to encounter.

Women are also more likely to attain office as non-partisans, particularly the office of heads of state (including Iceland’s Former President, Vigdis Finnbogadóttir). Slightly greater numbers of women rise to power on leftist party labels, nearly all from within multi-party systems. Europe’s tendency to utilize multi-party systems likely explains women’s recent advances in their executive aspirations. Despite the increased number of female presidential candidacies, few women successfully win these contests, an illustration of the continued obstacles to their true incorporation.

Many more questions remain and must be conducted in future research. Do women presidents and prime ministers in Europe act on behalf of women’s policy interests and appoint more women to political positions? Do they heighten women’s political interest, engagement, and efficacy? Women often hold weaker and more dispersed authority, but whether this is due to specific gender stereotypes held by party leaders and the public remains unclear and likely requires experimental research. Since women executives disproportionately govern in Europe, further regional analysis would be most helpful in addressing these questions.

Overall, in assessing powers, women in Europe exercise more dispersed and restricted authority than their male counterparts, although important exceptions exist. Regional differences within Europe also surface, further demonstrating women’s uneven advances. Numbers, pathways and political clout shape women’s advancement in this historically male preserve, resulting in mixed progress overall.

Dr. Farida Jalalzai is an Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her research focuses on women national leaders. Her first book Shattered, Cracked and Firmly Intact: Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide (Oxford University Press 2013) offers a comprehensive analysis of women, gender, and national leadership positions. Currently, she is completing a book manuscript examining female presidents of Latin America including Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica) Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Cristina Fernández (Argentina) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile).