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Words matter: Gendered language in politics weaponizes them against women

| Wednesday, January 25, 2023

One of the most striking aspects of language is its ability to be interpreted in many different ways. A phrase could mean a million different things to a million different people, and a simple change in tone, word choice and syntax could change everything. 

Language and politics are inseparable. Words are the modus operandi of all politicians, and the impact of modern language on women in politics is something to be wary of. 

There are 2,967 women holding elected office in the U.S. This number pales in comparison to the approximately 167.5 million women, of all ages, in the U.S. Women make up more than 50% of America’s population. Yet, they only hold 30% of elected offices on the federal, state and local levels – and this 30% is a record-breaking high, as more than ever before women are now engaging in political office.

A meager 30% is impressively low for a “record-breaking high.” Holding the right to vote for over a century and exceeding men in both quantity and quality of persons educated, American women have all of the tools necessary for success in the political sphere. Yet, the gendered language of constituents, media and other politicians presents an almost impenetrable barrier to women running for elected office. 

For decades, men have benefited from stereotypes around gender in politics, which consistently associate masculinity and effective leadership

Meredith Conroy, a political science professor at California State University San Bernardino, engaged in a research study to examine the use of gendered language in presidential elections from 2000 to 2012. Examining a random sample of 300 print-edition news articles from New York Times and USA Today, Conroy recorded all traits used to describe all presidential candidates and created what is, in essence, a “traits database.” Relying on an existent understanding of “gendered traits” from psychology and political science, traits within the database were labeled as masculine, feminine or gender-neutral. Masculine traits might include “risk-taker” or “fighter,” feminine traits could be “compassionate” or “cautious” and neutral traits were those like “intelligent,” “old” or “liar.” 

Among the articles examined, 56% of the traits recorded as describing presidential candidates were categorized as neutral, 30% as masculine and 14% as feminine. The most common masculine traits were “aggressive” and “confident,” generally framed in a positive light. The most common feminine traits were “weak” and “inconsistent,” generally used negatively. Delving further into the data, Conroy found that, among all feminine traits used to describe candidates, only 31% carried a positive tone. Compare this to the overwhelming 67% of masculine traits used positively, and it is no surprise that masculinity has become associated with effective political leadership. 

Though this study was published in 2015, the use — and potential harm — of gendered language is more relevant now than ever before. And it’s no longer as subtle as character traits. 

Donald Trump’s language during his presidency alone provides one of the clearest examples of the harm done to women in politics by use of gendered, and frankly sexist, language: 

At a news conference in April of 2016, the former president claimed that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has “nothing else to offer” beyond her “woman’s card … and the beautiful thing is women don’t [even] like her.” 

Following the 2020 vice presidential debate, Trump said that “[Kamala Harris is] this monster that was onstage with Mike Pence … She was terrible. I don’t think you could get worse. And totally unlikeable.” 

Speaking of Senator Elizabeth Warren, Trump said, “Goofy Elizabeth Warren, one of the least productive US senators, has a nasty mouth.” 

Trump referred to former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, as “Nervous Nancy” on his public twitter account. 

During an interview with Rolling Stone, Trump berated Carly Fiorina, his opponent in the Republican primary, saying that she could never be president because of her appearance. He said, “Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that … I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not supposed to say bad things, but really … come on.” 

Unfortunately, the above quotes are only a small portion of the long list of abrasive comments Trump has made toward women in the political sphere. From degrading women for their appearance to calling them weak or unlikeable for exhibiting very normal human behaviors, the former president made a sport of calling forth hostile sexism against women in politics.

Beyond direct attacks on women, Trump’s attempts to emasculate other male politicians by feminizing them further builds the metaphorical wall to women entering the political sphere. In an attempt to convince former Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results of the 2020 election, Trump said, “[Pence] can either go down in history as a patriot … or [he] can go down in history as a p*ssy.” Trump directly contrasts being a patriot — a positive and almost essential trait for any nation’s leader — and being a woman. By evoking female genitalia in a clearly negative connotation, the former president promoted the historical tie between masculinity and political leadership. 

If the executive leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world told you time and time again that you were not suited for politics because of your gender or sex, would you not eventually start to believe him? 

The heavily gendered language we hear used regularly to describe suitability for the office of the president, compounded with the traditional belief that masculine traits are necessary for executive leadership, fortifies the idea that femininity and feminine qualities are ill-suited for leadership. In consequence, the improper idea that women are not capable of effective political leadership becomes more and more deeply ingrained in the American psyche.   

From their youth, women are taught through history, experiential learning and the language of our culture that politics is a “man’s world” with no room for women. We are incredibly lucky to be seeing so many women run for political office right now — especially given the culture of toxic masculinity which has washed over the American political sphere. 

We need to elect the most qualified candidates to office, regardless of their gender. However, the current pool of candidates is limited by the use of gendered language, as many highly qualified women are discouraged from even considering candidacy. 

We cannot allow gendered language to continue socializing the notion that women don’t have a place in politics. We cannot allow gendered language to continue excluding more than half of the American population from politics. And in a time of such volatility — where change is not only necessary, but also decidedly happening — we certainly cannot allow gendered language to waste our opportunity to put more women in office. 

Such minor things as what we say can impact such major effects as who leads the free world. Choose your words wisely.

Ainsley Hillman, a sophomore living in Johnson Family Hall, is studying Business Analytics and Political Science. She currently serves as the Director of Operations within BridgeND. Some of her research interests include U.S. foreign policy and the intersection of environmental and social justice. 

BridgeND is a multi-partisan political club committed to bridging the partisan divide through respectful and productive discourse. It meets on Tuesdays at 5 p.m. in Duncan Student Center W246 to learn about and discuss current political issues, and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @bridge_ND.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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