The New York Times: Campaigning While Female series

07/14/2018

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The surge of women’s activism in the Trump era has produced a record number of women running for office. And after years of being told to put on a suit and recite their résumé — and smile! — female candidates are revealing themselves in more complex ways. They aren’t running as men, but they aren’t exactly running as women in a stereotypical way. They’re running as individuals — something like the voters they are trying to reach.

On the trail, women are mixing discussion of health care and tax policy with intimate stories of debt and divorce, exposing their tattoos and, among African-American candidates, wearing natural hair.

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“These different women who are running, and the way they’re running, is going to change politics forever,” said Christine K. Jahnke, a longtime consultant to Democratic women. “They’re rewriting the playbook. But we don’t know exactly what the new playbook will look like.”

Studies have long shown that voters hold female candidates to a higher standard. They tend to support a male candidate they don’t like as long as they think he’s qualified, and they presume he is — after all, for several centuries, most leaders have looked like him. But women have to prove that they are both qualified and likable.

That can seem like an either-or proposition.

As Hillary Clinton prepared to run for president in 2008, her consultant Mark Penn warned in a memo that the nation wanted a “first father” but was not ready for a “first mama.” Mrs. Clinton ran as the candidate ready to answer that 3 a.m. phone call — opening her up to accusations of being inauthentic when she tried to show her more grandmotherly side in her 2016 campaign.

With so many women running this year, consultants say voters are more willing to accept female candidates as qualified. “The playing field is changing as we’re on it,” said Mark Putnam, a Democratic ad maker. “Voters are changing with them.”

The old advice, strategists and candidates say, didn’t really work anyway. In focus groups conducted after Mrs. Clinton’s loss in 2016, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which works to help elect more women, found that voters want to know about a woman’s personal life. If she doesn’t share, they make assumptions about it.

Female candidates still get questions about who is going to take care of their children, and criticism of their clothing or hair or voice. President Trump has routinely singled out women leaders as “wacky,” promiscuousand “low I.Q.”

But women are finding more leeway to run as what the Lee Foundation calls “360 degree candidates,” presenting a range of life experiences to voters.

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Susan Wild, a 60-year-old lawyer running as a Democrat for an open seat in Pennsylvania, remembers once being reprimanded by a judge for wearing a pantsuit instead of a dress.

She began her campaign, she said, sticking to the issues. But she realized that showing a more personal side made her more confident. One of her best moments in the three-way primary came during a debate where she mentioned her son and, catching sight of him in the front row of the audience, choked up. Before smaller audiences, she said, she has talked about her divorce — hearing her talk about how amicable it is, she said, conveyed to voters that she could build consensus in Congress.

“You know your personal story better then anybody does,” Ms. Wild said. “ You don’t have to start thinking, ‘Am I saying this the right way?’”

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Read the full article from The New York Times.

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