The following is an interview with Dr. Lia Rohr who came to Centre College in 2013 as a Visiting Professor of Politics. She received a B.A. in history from the University of Arizona and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Southern Illinois University. She studies the intersection of gender, the media, and American politics.
Alison Grimes has been placing a lot of emphasis on her gender, presumably in hopes that Kentucky women, who make up 53% of the electorate, will be more likely to vote in her favor come November 4th. Do you think this strategy will be successful?
While “playing to gender” has proven to be a successful strategy in some contexts and with some voters, I think it would be a mistake for Grimes to continue this pronounced gender-based strategy, as it has the potential to turn off as many voters as it might attract to her camp. We have to keep in mind that parts of Kentucky are pretty conservative, and a gender-based focus might not be the most effective strategy in some areas. If she wishes to defeat McConnell, she might want to shift some of the attention away from her gender and toward a focus on her qualifications.
How do you think that Mitch McConnell or the national Republican Party will deal with the role of gender in the campaign? What effect might that have on voters?
McConnell will likely tread very lightly on gender in order to avoid making any ill-timed gaffes, such as the one’s that plagued male candidates of his party in 2012. McConnell’s team might attempt to mitigate the focus on gender altogether or, conversely, focus on gender from either a family-values or economic independence perspective. He will also need to be careful not to appear as though he is attacking Grimes too overtly, as that might turn a number of voters off.
In my last post, I discussed Alice Eagly’s argument that a female’s disadvantage in politics stems from a necessity to assume both the female gender role but also the stereotypically “male” leadership role characteristics. Do you find validity to that argument? What other arguments do you find particularly convincing in explaining this disadvantage?
It is true that women candidates are often plagued by a “double bind,” in which they must walk a metaphorical tight rope between feminity and competency, but I do believe that more voters have become aware of this and less likely to punish women who don’t fit the ideal image of female candidate who effectively balances the two sides of the bind. Unfortunately, this is still a reality and one that is often perpetuated by the media. However, I think as we see more in politics, the need to appeal to the double bind will diminish.
On the most basic level, do you consider it an advantage or a disadvantage to be a woman in American politics?
While in some contexts and in some districts, being a woman might actually be advantageous, I think that overall women still face an uphill battle. While women are just as successful as their male counterparts when they do run, a lot of women, even highly qualified women, are reluctant to run. Unfortunately, many women do not feel they are qualified to run (even when they are) or are turned off by what they perceive as the hostile nature of electoral politics. Also, women are less likely to be encouraged to run, though this is changing. And while some voters are still biased against women candidates, others are not. The key is to get more women to run.
What was your Ph.D. dissertation about? Does it relate to the Kentucky Senate race? If so, how?
In my dissertation, I looked at how U.S. House candidates in a variety of electoral contexts negotiate gender role expectations in their campaign communications through the performance of gender-based archetypes. These archetypes range from the overtly feminine/masculine “mother” or “alpha male” characterizations to the more modern and less overtly gendered professional or modern man/women role. This definitely relates to the Kentucky Senate race. In my study I found that while many women challengers running against male incumbents pursued an overtly feminine gender-based strategy, none of them were successful in defeating the male incumbent. This implies that “playing to gender” might not be the best strategy for a woman candidate. If anything, Grimes needs to prove to the public that she is just as competent and qualified as McConnell. Emphasizing her gender, to a certain, extent, is necessary, but to win in such a high profile race, she will need to prove to the voters that she is more than her gender. Whatever the outcome, it will be an exciting race to watch from both a political and gender-based perspective.