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Opinions | Nikki Haley capitalizing on gender stereotypes has long-term costs

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/22/2023 Jacqueline Beatty
Former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley walks out to speak on the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 3 in Maryland. © Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post Former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley walks out to speak on the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 3 in Maryland.

Former South Carolina governor and ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced her candidacy in the Republican presidential primary last month — and so far, coverage of the campaign has centered more on Haley’s gender than her platform.

After CNN anchor Don Lemon asserted that Haley, 51, “isn’t in her prime” — remarks for which Lemon (weakly) apologized amid a backlash — the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) posted a video to Twitter featuring a number of women in their House caucus explaining what it means for a woman to be “in her prime.” Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa) identified herself as a wife and mother before staring into the camera and asserting: “There’s nothing liberals fear more than strong conservative women.”

As a presidential candidate, Haley has also purposefully leaned into her gender. The closing line of her campaign announcement video, posted on Twitter, invoked a potent symbol of womanhood: “You should know this about me: I don’t put up with bullies, and when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”

Haley is following in a long line of female candidates in both major parties who have seen an opportunity to reposition stereotypical assumptions about feminine weakness as uniquely feminine forms of power. While this often advances their political fortunes in the short-term, in the long run, employing such rhetoric undermines the fight for women’s rights by accepting the gendered inequality deeply embedded in patriarchal American culture.

As far back as the colonial period, women leaned into gendered stereotypes to win concessions from men in power.

They submitted petitions for various forms of aid and assistance in increasing numbers during the American Revolution, when the war, an economic crisis and disruptions in their domestic lives made it difficult for women to manage on their own. Petitioners emphasized tropes of feminine helplessness and vulnerability — claiming financial incompetence, ignorance of the law and dependence on their husbands — to bolster their arguments.

The women sought monetary relief, the repatriation of their husbands, compensation for lost property and, in some cases, divorces. They argued that it was their right to obtain this aid from the state, as the legal and economic dependents of men who had fallen short in providing for and protecting their wives.

This rhetoric proved potent: Legislators frequently provided the relief the petitioners sought. In this critical way, women empowered themselves by exploiting gendered stereotypes about their powerlessness. These rhetorical strategies carved out space for women in the male body politic, but on very unequal terms.

In the absence of suffrage and with few legal rights, women continued to deploy this strategy for over a century. Beginning in the 1790s, for example, elite White women and girls gained greater access to education — not in their own right, but because men in power expected them to be mothers, and education would make them better-suited to raise the nation’s future (White, male) citizens, voters and leaders.

White women participated in the public, political realm in the early-19th century largely at the invitation of male leaders of similar social standing who believed women’s feminine virtue could legitimate their actions and mollify the worst impulses of partisanship. By the 1830s, however, women were summarily pushed out of this sphere as male leaders worried about the ways in which politics could corrupt women’s allegedly superior virtue — the very trait that had led them to be invited into the political arena in the first place.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Northern women justified their political activism by emphasizing the uniqueness of their feminine and maternal roles. They joined the abolitionist cause, pointing out the moral failings of a system that separated enslaved women from their children and families because of profit. Women also took up the cause of temperance, highlighting the ways in which wives and mothers were left despondent, unsupported, abused and harmed by alcoholic husbands.

In many cases, these women were successful. After decades of activism, for example, alcohol was outlawed by the 18th Amendment in 1919. Yet, at the same time, women’s tacit acceptance of these tropes ultimately delayed the push for women’s equality.

The ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 granted (primarily) White women the right to vote, but women’s suffrage did not translate into meaningful political power.

That the 19th Amendment arrived on the heels of a “Red Scare” — at a time when pressing for equal rights of any sort could be derided as communist or socialist — ensured that those who continued to seek political inclusion based on gender difference prevailed over newly enfranchised women pressing for equality. As a result, for the next four decades, the women elected to political office tended to be White widows thought to be serving as mere placeholders for their deceased husbands — as many men and women at that time did not believe women were fit for office.

This all changed in the 1960s, when feminists — alongside other activists seeking legal equality, notably African Americans in the Jim Crow South — began critiquing unequal institutions and power structures.

Women sought political office in their own right and legal rights equal to those of men — and as they did so, they were no longer content to focus on and take advantage of perceived gender differences. By the early-1970s, a broad coalition of feminists was fighting to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a proposed constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed women’s equality under law.

In response, conservative women — led by activist Phyllis Schlafly in the 1970s — resurrected older ideas of gender difference to prevent ratification of the ERA. Schlafly’s STOP ERA campaign emphasized women’s domestic, dependent social roles and warned that their “right” to be provided for by a husband would be lost if the amendment were to pass. Schlafly presented herself as an advocate for fellow housewives and mothers, even though she had a successful multi-decade career as an author, lawyer and political activist. Schlafly’s efforts helped to sink the ERA, which remains in legal limbo.

Today, even after decades of progress and activists tirelessly pushing a more expansive and intersectional approach to feminism and women’s rights, women still have not reached political parity with White men. While women make up more than 50 percent of the population, for instance, they still only hold 28 percent of the seats in Congress.

Perhaps, then, it is unsurprising that female candidates in both major parties still attempt to position traditional tropes of femininity as political strengths. In 2008, for example, Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin used language similar to Haley’s recent presidential announcement, reminding voters that “the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull” is “lipstick.”

More recently on the Democratic side, then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris — in laying the groundwork for her short-lived presidential run in 2020 — tweeted that “the economy and national security are ‘women’s issues,’” projecting femininity onto policy areas often assumed to be better handled by men.

The fact that women of color like Harris and Haley can make these remarks points to a significant change. For most of U.S. history, only White women — thought to be more moral and better mothers than women of color — could successfully wield this language. Harris and Haley employing these strategies is a hopeful sign of racial progress in our politics, just as it is proof of the persistence of patriarchal power that requires adherence to these traditional gender assumptions.

To be sure, Haley and Harris use this rhetoric toward different ends because of their partisan affiliations and ideologies. Haley’s mention of “heels” relies on the tradition of gender difference, while Harris instead re-gendered “masculine” policies like national security as feminine. These differences only underscore the dogged persistence of patriarchy across the political spectrum, even after new doors — including running for president — have opened for women.

In a space still largely dominated by men and men’s assumptions about women, female candidates and political activists who seek to expand their power and rights must continue to toe a delicate line. Women in politics must exude strength and tenacity, but do so with a feminine flourish — perhaps, as Gov. Ann Richards (D-Tex.) once memorably quipped, while dancing backward, and in high heels.


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