clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump mocked Clinton's "woman card." He forgets that makes the election about masculinity.

Hillary Clinton capitalized on Donald Trump mocking the "woman card."
Hillary Clinton capitalized on Donald Trump mocking the "woman card."

Hillary Clinton is playing the woman card. But maybe Donald Trump is playing the man card.

"[I]f Hillary Clinton were a man, I don't think she'd get 5 percent of the vote," Trump responded to a question from Vox's Liz Plank. "The only thing she's got going is the woman's card, and the beautiful thing is, women don't like her."

The press was swift to embrace it as a scandal of the day. The Washington Post's Alexandra Petri cleverly used the "woman card" to point out all the subtle sexism women face in everyday life, and Bloomberg pointed out it was a preview of what's to come in the general election.

But as tempting as it is to chalk this whole thing up to a silly campaign moment, there are real questions about whether this "gender card" debate will help or hurt either candidate in the general election moving forward.

Research, at least all of the research before Donald Trump arrived on the scene, seemed to indicate a candidate's gender doesn't really matter— but it's more complicated than voters' decisions at the ballot box.

The flap reveals a lot not just about how Clinton is playing the woman card, but also about how Trump is playing the man card. If he plays the card wrong and loses, that could signal a big shift in how we think about women in power in US politics.

What do we talk about when we talk about the "gender card"?

Hillary Clinton unsmiling (Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The subtle implication Trump was making was that Clinton somehow has an unfair advantage because she's a woman.

Writing in the New York Times about the topic, Jill Filipovic reminded us that the gender and race cards are "broadly seen as cynical tactics."

"What more people probably have in their mind is a woman candidate relying on her sex as sort of a major criteria on which we should support her," said Kathy Dolan, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. "I think some people might be trying to suggest that she’s trying to do something that’s politically correct or trying to bully people into being politically correct and voting for her because she’d be the first woman."

This is what Trump means when he says Clinton wouldn't even be in the race if it weren't for her gender — that her gender has given her a leg up in what would otherwise be a résumé of someone who is unqualified. This is bound to rub some women the wrong way.

Victoria Budson, the founder and executive director of the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP) at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, put it this way: "Trump doesn’t seem to be looking at the history. Every election since 1964, more women than men have voted. Trump’s unfavorability rating is 70 percent among women."

She says there's a reason Trump's remarks might resonate with women voters, perhaps even Republican women. "Most women have had experiences that they would identify as sexist. I think this activates those memories and reflections," she said.

But will any of this really matter in the general election?

Donald Trump

The reality is that most people don't actually vote based on gender. Or at least, they say that they don't.

A few polls have asked about the question of a woman president. According to a March CNN/ORC international poll, 80 percent of Americans think the country is ready for a woman president (up from 60 percent in 2006). But only 25 percent of men and 35 percent of women said it was extremely or very important a woman be elected president in their lifetimes.

Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University Camden and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, points out there's a lot that shapes the race before people make that final decision. "Gender is at play in lots of ways well before voters cast their ballots," she says.

In her 2015 book, Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns, she spoke with many campaign consultants who talked about the dramatically different strategies they employed with female candidates.

"Voters, [consultants] say, are more likely to view female candidates as emotional and compassionate and male candidates as assertive," she wrote in a summary of her book's research. "Consultants also presume that voters see female candidates as experts on social programs, education, health care, and family policies, while expecting male candidates to know more about national security and defense."

So even if most voters don't think of themselves as voting for a woman just because she's a woman, Dittmar argues, plenty of decisions about how she runs are made before voters decide.

Furthermore, a candidate's gender can play heavily into how consultants calculate attack ads. "Male candidates can attack female contenders, but to avoid perceptions of bullying or sexism they tend to be cautious about the settings, style, and substance of such attacks," Dittmar says.

Still, at the end of the day, partisanship is strong. "All of the evidence we actually have from elections in which women candidates run against men is that people vote for the candidate of their political party," UW Milwaukee's Dolan said. Men, even if they have less than feminist ideas about women's equality, will come around.

"If he’s a Democrat, come November he’s still going to vote for Hillary Clinton if she’s the nominee. He’s certainly not going to vote for Donald Trump," she said. The idea that men might switch over Clinton's gender is "absurd on its face."

Still, she pauses to acknowledge that Trump has caused many political scientists to question what were formerly thought to be fundamentals about politics.

"We have not had candidates polling this poorly among women across the board in quite a long time. I don’t know that there’s a precedent for it. He’s unpopular among women of all races, and of all age groups, and all socioeconomic categories, and marital status, and everything," Dolan said. "There are lots of Republican women who are going to have to hold their nose to vote because the party is what they care about most, but there could be some number of Republican women who just can’t do it."

Some experimental research from political scientists Lynn Vavreck, of University of California Los Angeles, and John Geer, of Vanderbilt University, seemed to indicate this might be a problem for Trump. They showed different attack ads to some focus groups. One attack ad that used Trump's previous sexist comments seemed to hurt him, but a pro-Clinton gender-centric ad seemed to have more of a mixed effect.

Dolan calls Trump an "equal opportunity verbal abuser" but acknowledged that "it doesn’t seem to bother people as much when he talks about Jeb Bush as when he talks about women," Dolan said.

Where did the concept of the "gender card" come from, anyway?

Anita Hill sworn in on the second day of Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearing. Jennifer K. Law via Getty Images

Like many things at play in this current presidential race, the popular political origins of the "gender card" has its roots in the 1990s.

The terms "gender card" and "race card" were thrown around back then, but came into popular speech with the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. During the proceedings, the country heard the allegations that he'd made unwanted sexual advances on his former colleague Anita Hill.

It's easy to forget what a big deal this hearing was at the time, but for many women this was the first time there was a public discussion of inappropriate workplace behavior. Because of Thomas's race, the narrative became that the hearings amounted to the "race card" versus the "gender card," despite both Thomas and Hill being black.

The next year, which was dubbed the "year of the woman," a record number of women ran for and were elected to office. These women made the case for the "gender card," whether they were explicit about it or not — essentially, the Senate panel that heard Hill's testimony (and eventually confirmed Thomas) was ill-equipped to deal with sexual harassment allegations, as a group of white men.

And because it was the '90s, Hillary Clinton had her own encounter with the "gender card" — famed Clinton critic Maureen Dowd accused her of playing the gender card when she defended herself against being too involved with her husband's health care reform effort.

Even in this cycle, Trump wasn't the first to accuse Clinton of playing the "gender card." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized Clinton's run for the White House back in July 2015.

"I don't think arguing 'vote for me because I'm a woman' is enough," McConnell told the Associated Press at the time, pointing to how he'd defeated his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundergan Grimes. "The gender card alone is not enough."

That's how the "deal me in" line made its way into Clinton's stump speech in the first place. She was originally responding to McConnell.

Feminists have changed their argument from "we're equal to men" to "we're different from men — and deserve to be included"

To understand why the "woman card" or the "gender card" resonates so strongly, we have to backtrack a bit through American feminist history. Thanks to Kathryn Kish Sklar of Binghamton University for helping me understand all this.

When early suffragists fought for the right to vote, they argued that women were different from men in a way that was good. Women were more virtuous than men, and deserved to be treated with even more respect than men.

But after women achieved the right to vote in 1920 and began slowly trickling into the workplace, working side by side with men, feminists seemed to agree that the best way to get ahead in a "man's world" was to do their best to act like men. Sklar pointed out that initially many feminists were opposed to putting discrimination based on sex in the Civil Rights Act because they thought women shouldn't be judged by different standards. (The whole history of how women got included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act is a fascinating one, which you can read about here.)

But now feminists are laying out a different path. Women aren't "the same" as men. They're different — not in a way that's better or worse, necessarily, but in a way that's still important and valuable. The same could be said of how people's perspective is changing on racial diversity.

Sklar put it this way: "My own view is that women are a long way from being equal to men, and the only way they can become more equal is to have their differences from men recognized."

How this evolution is best demonstrated by Hillary Clinton herself

Obama and Hillary Clinton Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This becomes clear when you think about the evolution of Hillary Clinton's own campaigns between 2008 and 2016. As Sklar wrote in a 2008 paper in Feminist Studies on Clinton's first primary campaign for president, the "masculine mystique" played an important role in campaigning for president for decades — with Ronald Reagan as a particularly prominent example.

Clinton, who came of age during that post-suffrage phase, when women were supposed to compete with men by being "the same" as men, framed her 2008 run that way. Sklar describes it in the paper this way:

Hillary Clinton sustained the masculine mystique when she tried to discredit Obama as too feminine to be president. She campaigned as a woman, but she consistently made passing the masculinity test her top priority. When she entered the Senate in 2000, she sought a place on the Senate Armed Services Committee. When she supported the war in Iraq and refused to acknowledge her error in judgement, she chose muscle-flexing over reality testing. And when her campaign emphasized her her capacity as commander in chief who could answer the red telephone better than Obama and "obliterate" Iran, she proved her willingness to use muscle flexing as an electoral tactic. Yet Clinton's embrace of "the masculine mystique" and militarist priorities left her behind the new curve that Obama created when he championed anti-war opinion. And her stance made many feminists realize they couldn't support her just because she was a woman.

Clinton answered the woman question by showing that women can compete, but she failed the race question by choosing competition over coalition. And she failed the gender question by allowing the masculine mystique to distort her political agenda and obscure the class agendas of Right-wing Republicans. She couldn't make a "gender" speech equivalent to Obama's "race" speech because she was herself playing a game of gender deception.

This time around, of course, Clinton has portrayed herself very differently. She's embraced gender issues and the historic nature of her candidacy. Instead of arguing that she's the same, she's making the case that she's different from the dozens of men who have previously held the job.

This, of course, creates its own problems, like eye-rollingly constant mentions of her role as a grandmother, but it signals that Clinton is following the evolution of feminism and moving beyond making the pure equivalency case.

Part of this election is about whether "masculinity" is still a key requirement for the presidency

Missed me? (Scott Olson/Getty Images) Scott Olson/Getty Images

Missed me? (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

If it sounds like Clinton is in a no-win situation on the gender issue — that she has to be tough but also feminine — that's because she is. Lots of women know they walk a fine line between being authoritative and being called "pushy." And there's some pretty hard evidence in the way women's leadership is represented in the private sector.

"We’re pretty comfortable with women in leadership when they’re in a deliberative body." Harvard's Budson said, pointing out the small but slowly increasing numbers of women in Congress or on corporate boards. "But when you look at executive leadership, in Fortune 500 companies, and governors, those numbers are much, much smaller. We are still coming to terms with seeing the executive leadership as female."

The reverse of that implication, of course, is that leadership is seen as inherently masculine. Rutgers's Dittmar pointed out that's at play with Trump. "Everyone is playing the gender card, the only question is how," she said.

If anything, Trump has been capitalizing on this masculinity performance throughout the campaign — showing dominance over his rivals refusing to back down. During a primary debate, the time during which candidates have an opportunity to talk about their qualifications for the highest office, Trump explicitly spoke about his dick size.

"Trump is all about gender. He’s more about gender than he is about class," Binghamton's Sklar said.

And if a woman is able to beat him for the biggest political prize in American politics, what does that say about his masculinity?

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.