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Professors and students talk election gender dynamics


Tuesday’s election concludes the first campaign cycle in which a presidential nominee’s pantsuits have been at the forefront of media coverage. However, it is also the only time the movements of a candidate during a debate have been critiqued as “lurking.”

Both of these odd subcontexts play into the political gender gap, which is the percentage difference between male and female votes for a given candidate.

The gap has been evident in every presidential election since 1980, according to the Pew Research Center, and this election is no exception.

“(Trump) is appealing to a sense of a white masculinity that many have written about as being in crisis and at risk.” — Wendy Smooth, chair of undergraduate studies in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

While the Republican Party has been trying to narrow the gender gap and gain female supporters for the past nine presidential elections, the 2016 gender gap between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is predicted to be higher than historical patterns — 13 percent, according to a recent Pew poll, versus the average margin of 8 percent.

Wendy Smooth, chair of undergraduate studies in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies who has studied gender’s effects on politics, said this election’s variance may be especially wide because of a “crisis in white masculinity.”

“(Trump) is appealing to a sense of a white masculinity that many have written about as being in crisis and at risk,” Smooth said. “So the fears of underachievement or the system being against you is also coded language for protecting white masculinity.”

Michael Mosholder, a third-year in philosophy and political science and a Trump supporter, disagreed, in part.

“Trump’s personality tends to cater specifically to white males. Men, in general, are becoming emasculated,” Mosholder said. “But the fact that he has a lot of women working on his campaign shows he’s not completely blind to the situations women face.”

After the second presidential debate, which aired on Oct. 9, many experts in the respective fields of gender and body language critiqued Trump for physically following behind Clinton as she spoke.

Jill Bystydzienski, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, described this behavior as “lurking.”

“I doubt Trump would have (behaved that way on stage) if he was debating another man,” Bystydzienski said. “Especially if (that man) was about his height.”

But not everyone thought Trump’s body language was gender-driven.

“(Trump) didn’t go out of his way to go behind (Clinton) or lurk her, (his patterns around the stage) seemed like organic movements,” Mosholder said.

Though this election is historic in the sense that it is the first time a presidential candidate from a major party has been female, it is not the first time women — and their gender — have been at the forefront of elections.

In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro shared a ticket with Democratic nominee Walter Mondale. Both the treatment of Ferraro and the treatment of 2008 Republican candidate John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, occurred in a “gendered context,” Smooth said.

“What (Palin) was wearing, her level of attractiveness (were evaluated),” she said. “There was a frame of reading Sarah Palin as the failed mother whose children were suffering at the hands of (her ambition).”

But Smooth said the most drastic changes to the outlook of women in politics happened on the heels of Clarence Thomas’ 1991 confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court, during which Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by his former employee and current Oklahoma State law professor, Anita Hill.

Though ultimately confirmed as an associate justice by a 52-48 split, the Senate that approved Thomas was composed of 98 percent men. This catalyzed 1992’s “Year of the Woman,” in which a record number of women ran for public office.

Prior to 1992, there was not an adequate conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace. After the scandal, Americans started to define terminology regarding the subject that was not previously addressed in any systematic way, Smooth said.

“Out of 1992, we started to talk a lot as a nation about what is sexual harassment — in much of the same ways we will now be talking about what constitutes sexual assault,” Smooth said in reference to 2005 hot-mic footage in which Trump said “Grab ‘em by the pussy.”

Though Trump attempted to justify his comments by summing up his rhetoric as “locker-room talk,” Alison Sukys, a second-year studying public affairs, disagreed with his reasoning.

Sukys said she could not vote for Trump, despite her former allegiance to the Republican Party.

“I can’t vote for him because of the way he talks about my gender,” she said. “(Female voters) just want someone who will treat them like human beings. Although (Clinton) is not the best candidate, she does believe women are equal.”

In addition, the sports metaphors in politics expand far beyond the coined “locker-room talk,” Smooth and Bystydzienski said. Discussing Clinton as lacking stamina or citing the election as being in its “last inning” or “final stretch” associates politics with masculinity.

“To say that (Clinton) lacks stamina — that makes her unfit to be president — we automatically claim the presidency as having the characteristics of masculinity,” Smooth said.

Sukys said she thinks a win for Clinton on Tuesday could be key in propelling her party into modernity.

“I almost want Clinton to win to give Republicans a kick in the ass. We need to realize that we need to change stances on (certain issues). We need to be pro-choice and pro-marriage equality,” Sukys said before adding, “I guess I’m with her.”

Though Smooth said she was excited for the metaphorical breaking of the glass ceiling that would accompany a win by Clinton, she said a female victory would not be the end of gender-driven issues in society.

“I caution — I highly caution — people who are thinking that this is the last frontier, and that once this accomplishment has happened, it will mean the end of sexism,” Smooth said. “It is only the beginning.”


For more on this election, check out Lantern TV’s special, “Race to the Presidency,” here:

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