The Masculinity Trap in Electoral Politics


In another record year for women candidates, U.S. politics is still dominated by men and masculinity. Political candidates and practitioners have the power to change that, but too often they engage in tactics that reinforce instead of disrupt expectations that being fit for political leadership means proving you are “man enough” for the job.

Take the recent attacks on Donald Trump from The Lincoln Project, a political action committee created by anti-Trump Republicans to prevent his re-election. In an ad called “Shrinking,” the female narrator heckles Trump for failing to draw a large audience at his June rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She makes multiple (and thinly-veiled) suggestions that the “smaller than expected” size of the crowd is comparable to the size of Trump’s penis. We’ve been here before. In 2016, Marco Rubio famously criticized Trump for having small hands, telling an audience, “You know what they say about men with small hands….” Trump, unprompted, responded on the Republican debate stage less than a week later: “[Rubio] hit my hands. Nobody has ever hit my hands, I’ve never heard of this before. Look at those hands, are they small hands? And he referred to my hands, ‘if they’re small something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem, I guarantee it.” Both Rubio and The Lincoln Project seemed to think they were onto something; if Trump’s strategy is to rely on his manliness as proof of his fitness for office, then emasculating him will undermine his success.

But using emasculation strategies only upholds masculinity as the measure by which fitness for presidential office is proven. There has been little subtlety in Trump’s messaging or approach; from attacking his female opponent for not having “a presidential look” to circulating an image of himself as fictional prize-fighter Rocky Balboa, he seeks to distinguish himself as the manliest – and thus most qualified – person to be president. That approach makes strategic sense for Donald Trump, whose success in 2016 was fueled by voters who feared that “society was becoming too soft and feminine” and were much more likely than Clinton voters to worry that “these days society seems to punish men just for acting like men.” They also expressed higher levels of hostile sexism than those who didn’t back Trump. Trump and his campaign team – knowingly or not – tapped into these feelings and seemed to reassure voters of a return to an earlier era in which manhood, at least for some men, felt less precarious. Other Republican candidates seeking to mobilize Trump’s base are following his lead this year.

Making fun of Trump’s “crowd” size or calling him weak and low energy is, first, not going to convince Trump’s loyal supporters that he is not pro-man; he has upheld (white) male dominance in his rhetoric, policies, and the company he keeps. But perhaps more importantly, seeking to disqualify Trump – or any candidate – for his or her failure to meet masculine credentials only maintains power in those credentials and pressures candidates to engage in a competition over who meets them most. This is the trap of upholding masculine dominance in U.S. politics.

A new ad from former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign serves as a reminder of what campaigns look like when fought on masculine terrain. In “That’s a President,” voters are reminded that being president takes strength and courage while seeing images of Biden with (nearly all) male and military leaders. While women make a cameo when the ad touts Biden’s compassion, the ad’s masculinized tone – quite literally in the music that some have compared to Ford truck commercials – adheres to campaign norms that perpetuate instead of disrupt the alignment of political leadership with stereotypically masculine traits and imagery.  We’ve seen this before, too. In 2018, Erin Cassese wrote about Senator Joe Manchin’s targeted appeals to men in his re-election advertisements, noting the literal absence of women, and Senator Jon Tester adopted a similarly male-centric approach in one of his re-election ads. Whether these ads seek to foster male solidarity or reassure voters of candidates’ masculine bona fides, they reinforce gender norms in U.S. campaigns that associate leadership credentials with masculinity and align masculinity with men.

Maintaining masculine dominance is not limited to men, though. Whether by emphasizing stereotypically masculine credentials or engaging in emasculation tactics, women also play a role in centering masculinity in U.S. politics. In 2008, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign focused on proving she could be the “first father” with the requisite “testicular fortitude” to do the job. In 2016, Carly Fiorina told Donald Trump to “man up” and debate Ted Cruz (who she had recently endorsed), and Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to bait him in tweets calling him a small and weak man who is unable to handle “losing to a girl.” I recently reviewed the ways some Republican women candidates are meeting masculine expectations in their 2020 candidacies for the U.S. House, but these approaches cross party lines. Last month, U.S. Senate candidate M.J. Hegar responded to a twitter spat between Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and actor Ron Perlman – which boiled down to who could win in a wrestling match – by tweeting a photo of herself weightlifting with the text, “Hey Texas, just want to let you know, if you make me your US senator... I handle my own fights.” These are just a few of many examples of tactics by women – who have faced particular pressure to prove themselves in a man’s world – that adapt to a masculine arena instead of challenging it.  

Instead of accepting the dominance of masculinity in U.S. politics, especially at the presidential level, and engaging in strategies that uphold it as a proxy for political fitness, we should expand the credentials we seek, value, and reward among candidates and officeholders. Disrupting the gender power imbalance in U.S. politics requires not only shifting power away from men but also from masculinity. Paying close attention to the terms on which women and men are seeking entry into – and finding success in – our political institutions will better reveal the degree to which that work is done. It’s not enough to increase the number of women candidates, or to put a woman on the presidential ticket. Bringing more women into politics on men’s terms is not the empowerment we need. It’s time to change the terms of engagement if we want to create new paths to political success.  

Kelly Dittmar

Kelly Dittmar is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Rutgers–Camden and Director of Research and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. She is the co-author of A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters (Oxford University Press, 2018) (with Kira Sanbonmatsu and Susan J. Carroll) and author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns (Temple University Press, 2015).