Back in 1980, when Republicans were members of a political party and not a religion, I was the Republican candidate for Congress from Indiana’s (then) eleventh district. In 1980, it was still comparatively unusual for either party to run a woman, and I had plenty of opportunity to grit my teeth over the tendency of reporters to focus on what I was wearing rather than what I was saying. My Washington-based consultant advised me to “look tough,” so that my gender would not be read as feminine softness–advice that, in retrospect, probably just made me look unpleasant.
In the 30+ years since that campaign, women have arguably made considerable progress–but we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think sexism still frames political contests. Gender bias remains, but it manifests itself more subtly. In 2008, Sarah Palin tried to sell herself as a conservative version of a feminist, but that claim rang hollow to real feminists for many reasons, not the least of which was that much of her support was based upon her undeniable good looks. I am firmly of the opinion that neither Palin nor Bachmann would have achieved political prominence had they looked like Janet Reno.
Which brings me to an intriguing, if depressing, study recently reported in the Journal of Religion and Politics.
The authors were investigating the oft-noted tendency of today’s religiously conservative candidates to use “dog whistles”–phrases that don’t register with the more secular among us, but that signal to the extremely religious that the candidate is one of them. (George W. Bush was a master at this.) They found, however, that this tactic was more effective when used by male candidates that when it was used by females. As the authors noted, “The code functioned as a highly sophisticated, closed-circuit cue for Evangelicals regarding male candidate acceptability…the code does not work in the same way for female candidates.” While reluctant to draw conclusions, they raise a pertinent question: “What if the Republican ‘advantage’ in using religious appeals is based on an inherent characteristic–gender–of those making the appeals?”
Whatever the answer to that question, if we have learned anything about politics during the past decade, it is that–for good or ill–race, gender, religion and sexual orientation continue to frame our responses to those who run for office.