Gone are the days when women political candidates felt they had to imitate their male counterparts and downplay their femininity to win elections.
“Women had to be seen as tough, tough on crime, tough if there was a war,” says New York-based reputation, crisis and culture consultant Davia Temin. “After all, you were going to be commander-in chief if you were running for president, so you had to exude some toughness.”
In other words, voter expectations of a candidacy were associated with men and masculinity.
“Women were sort of tasked with adapting to the role of being ‘man enough’ to be a political leader,” says Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers. “So that meant proving you’re tough, strong, showing yourself in your suit, talking about national security and defense, all of those things.”
New York consultant Temin, who has worked with female political candidates to help make their voices more effective and powerful, says projecting too tough of an image can backfire.
“The first time she ran, Hillary’s [Clinton] rap was that she was too tough and everybody loved her when she cried,” she says. “So this is a see-saw and I don’t think we have gotten to the balance point yet.”
Going into next month’s midterm elections, more women are nominees for public office, including the U.S. Congress, than ever before. Female candidates are gaining ground in part because they’re done with trying to imitate their male counterparts.
“We’re having a high number and concentration of women who are willing to speak openly and use gender and their distinct experiences as women as a value added to their candidacy instead of like a hurdle they have to overcome,” says Dittmar.
If you check out a television ad for Congressional candidate Jennifer Wexton, you’ll find the Virginia Democrat touting her minivan-driving, working mom credentials as much as her professional experience as a prosecutor.
And then there’s Michigan Republican Congressional nominee Lena Epstein, whose television ad underscores how hard it is to be a woman in a man’s world.
“We see women saying, ‘I don’t have to just meet the expectations that have already been set about men and masculinity and political leadership,’” says Dittmar.
“’But instead I’m going to offer you some new credentials, some new traits, some new values that you should care about in your political leaders.’ And so they use their experiences and their traits that are more often associated with women, with femininity.”
These female candidates emphasize the value of being in tune with women, who make up more than 50 percent of the U.S. population.
They often highlight the empathy that can only come with knowing what it’s like to be sexually abused or assaulted, or understanding how doors can be closed in your face because you are a woman.
Temin says that sense of authenticity can make all of the difference for women candidates.
“You want somebody steady, firm, believable, true, real, authentic…that what they say truly reflects what they believe,” she says. “And I believe that when you’re congruent in what you’re talking about, you channel a power…it’s a real power. It’s not just made up stuff, it’s not just talking points, and it’s not just playing to the surveys and the polls.”