Caution doesn’t always cut it. Running like a man often doesn’t work. Fed up with the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t advice heaped on female political candidates, some of the many women running for office this year are doing whatever they damn well want.
In one campaign ad, a Republican congresswoman from Arizona tells her party to “grow a pair of ovaries.” Democrats running for governor in Wisconsin and Maryland have pitched their candidacies on camera while breastfeeding their babies. A Michigan Democrat says that in choosing their next attorney general, voters should consider: “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?”
After an election that unleashed women’s fury and sexual harassment scandals that spawned a thousand hashtags, women are shattering traditional limits of gender decorum in campaign ads. No longer are they presenting themselves as tough-but-caring overachievers who are, incidentally, not men. Some of them are introducing themselves with images that are unapologetically in-your-face female.
“This year we have women that are running very boldly, and they typically are in districts where they feel like campaigning boldly as a woman will grab attention during this very chaotic, very partisan political environment,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University.
While few candidates link their campaigns directly to the #MeToo movement, many seem to be emboldened by it, sensing that in a moment when women everywhere are speaking their minds, the women running for office can, too. Some are presenting themselves in ways that, just a few years ago, a lady wouldn’t have dared.
In an online video, Katie Hill, a 30-year-old first-time candidate running for Congress in a district north of Los Angeles, details her wrenching deliberations over whether to end an unplanned pregnancy with a supportive partner. Before she released the video, she showed it to a group of eight women who had already been elected to Congress.
“They were like, ‘You can’t,’ ” Hill, a Democrat, said in an interview. “They were nice about it. They were like, ‘It’s a really powerful story. It’s just a big risk and you don’t need to take it.’ But I feel like I do.”
Whether it’s advisable for a woman to wield her gender as an asset this election cycle depends on factors particular to her campaign — the demographic makeup of the district’s electorate, the field, the circumstances. Longshot candidates often use attention-grabbing ads to boost name recognition despite dim hopes of victory.
“Obviously, if you’re a challenger, you have to take more risks. You have to do more attention-grabbing; you have to use things that set you apart,” said Bystrom.
Typically, feminist appeals are far more common from Democrats, she noted. But Martha McSally, a Republican House member running for Senate, has one of the boldest ads out there, telling “Washington Republicans to grow a pair of ovaries,” while touting her tough qualifications and saying she “refused to bow down to Sharia law.” The first US female pilot to fly in combat, she sued the Air Force to change a policy requiring US servicewomen in Saudi Arabia to wear traditional Muslim headscarves.
A Trump ally, McSally is positioning herself as a renegade Republican in the race to replace Jeff Flake – and possibly determine control of the narrowly divided Senate.
Since women are so underrepresented in politics — less than one-fifth of Congress — they can be viewed as outsiders by a restless electorate clamoring for turnover, Bystrom noted.
“If you look at an overall strategy for women over the last several cycles, they are seen as agents of change,” said Bystrom. “That’s something they can run on, either from the left or the right.”
She pointed to the 2014 ad that famously catapulted Iowa Republican Joni Ernst to US Senate. The newcomer touted her three roles — as “mother, soldier, conservative” — and made a jarring reference to castration. (“I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm,” she said, “so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”)
By 2016, when two established female candidates faced off in the New Hampshire race for US Senate, both Republican Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Maggie Hassan advertised their roles as mothers, along with their policy stances.
Now, female candidates are putting forth “new images of what we see as normal,” and “pushing boundaries,” said Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University Camden and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.
“It expands voters’ notions of what we deem as appropriate and acceptable, and then it also allows for women to use their gender as a value-added, as a credential, as one among many merits that they bring to office-holding,” Dittmar said.
That also holds true for LGBTQ candidates, she noted. In Massachusetts, Alexandra Chandler, a transgender woman, is running in the crowded field for the Third Congressional District with a campaign video that highlights not just her background in naval intelligence but also her wedding to her wife.
Not everything works, and some approaches could be cringe-inducing or outright alienating.
In Illinois, Sol Flores lost a bid for Congress last month after running an ad set in her childhood bedroom where she was molested by someone staying with her family.
“I’ll fight as hard for you in Congress as I did to protect myself,” Flores, a Democrat, said in the spot, which was timed to air the night of the Academy Awards, when performers highlighted sexual misconduct in their industry.
Dana Nessel’s provocative ad for Michigan attorney general suggests that “men are the problem,” Dittmar noted, rather than blaming the problem of sexual misconduct on broader, institutional power dynamics.
“I’m not sure that’s the best strategy,” said Dittmar.
“There’s a question about how this resonates with male and female voters,” Dittmar said. “Does it feel like you’re attacking men?”
Expect more groundbreaking videos to come.
A Baltimore activist has created a Vote Me Too PAC to convert small donations into slick campaign ads for female candidates who champion such issues as protecting women from sexual violence. Sarah Sherman, a 42-year-old mother of twins, decided that she and her husband, who makes videos for a living, should put their skills to work for promising politicians.
While fund-raising and identifying candidates to support, the Vote Me Too PAC is launching edgy ads on social media. (“51 percent of our population has a vagina. 81 percent of members of Congress don’t have vaginas. Why is this a problem?” one spot asks. “Because it leads to a culture where sexual discrimination & sexual violence are tolerated.”)
In California, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Amanda Renteria released a campaign video showing women wearing pussyhats at last year’s Women’s March on Washington. “People are saying ‘Time’s up,’ and ‘Enough’s enough,’ ” she says. “We’re quickly turning a corner where people are saying this stuff matters. Personal conduct matters.”
She soon made it an issue in her fledgling campaign for governor, demanding that the male front-runner step aside over sexual misconduct — an affair he acknowledged with an aide more than a decade earlier.
That front-runner, who has not stepped down, is Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor and a fellow Democrat whose spokesman derided Renteria’s effort as a “brazen and self-serving political stunt.”
Renteria is okay with “brazen.” (She noted in an interview that she has never been a shrinking violet, and that she asked her future husband to marry her while they were shown on the Jumbotron at a Red Sox game.)
She was also the national political director for Hillary Clinton’s cautious-to-a-fault presidential campaign, and she is not mincing words now.
“Now is not a time for cautiousness. Now is not a time to poll-test how you feel or whether you think other people will think you’re right about this,” Renteria said.
“We’re done with the days where we have to be silent, where we’re putting our career or our own truth at odds with each other,” said Renteria.
“For some folks it might be a little scary that a woman is now on the stage . . . and wants to talk about uncomfortable things,” Renteria added. “The exact conversation we need to be having right now is the uncomfortable conversation.”