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Words matter: Gendered language in politics weaponizes them against women

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 bridgend@nd.edu 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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News

Feminists United holds rally to encourage women’s voting

Saint Mary’s Feminists United club held a rally Saturday afternoon in front of Le Mans Hall to mark one month until election day. Echoing other women’s marches around the country also held Saturday, the rally centered around speakers who addressed the importance of women getting out to vote in elections.

“We are trying to highlight voting right now with the midterm election coming up,” Feminists United treasurer and senior Libbey Detcher said. “Traditionally, college students have a really low voter turnout.”

Feminists United’s mission is to empower and give community to women. Each year, they hold events like feminist trivia, work the women’s health fair, help with Take Back the Night and sponsor voting events such as the one on Saturday to encourage women to get out and vote. 

Feminists United president and junior Madison Mata said events like the rally are especially important to learn about and provide resources to assist the voting process.

“I am from Texas and whenever I have to request my absentee ballot, I get really confused,” Mata said about her own experiences.

Detcher said women’s voices are too often quieted in society.

“I think some voices tend to be underrepresented or even stifled sometimes,” she said.

The speakers at the event were all women in government offices who shared their stories and discussed the importance of women voting.

The first to speak was Saint Mary’s alum Rachel Tomas Morgan, an at-large member of the common council in South Bend. Tomas Morgan talked about how she tried to encourage many people to run for city council seats before someone turned the question back on her and asked why she didn’t run herself.

Tomas Morgan said she originally thought she didn’t have the knowledge, qualifications or experience to run. She had asked 60 people their opinions on her running before she felt validated enough to try.

In her speech, Tomas Morgan said a man would never question himself so much before running. She encouraged women to take more active roles in reaching for positions of authority and decision making. 

“Women need to ask ‘Why not me?’” Tomas Morgan said.

The next speaker was state representative Maureen Bauer.

“We do not have a truly representative government,” she said.

Bauer noted that St. Joseph County has a general assembly made up of 77% men and that women in St. Joseph County make around 72 cents to every dollar a man makes, a typical trend across the country.

In her argument, Bauer used statistics to encourage women to fight for their rights and encouraged involvement in politics, whether it be voting or running for office themselves.

State senate candidate Melinda Fountain spoke last. Fountain detailed having faced harassment while in ROTC and more subtle snubbing as a diplomat for the U.S. Foreign Service.

Fountain voiced frustrations at the continuous discrimination she has endured because of her gender. She said she decided to make a difference in political representation, starting small by running for her township board and now running for state senate. She advised the audience at Saint Mary’s to believe in themselves regardless of what statistics may show or what others may say. 

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News

State Senator Monique Limón discusses elevating voices, women in politics

On Friday morning in the Hesburgh Center Auditorium, California State Senator Monique Limón spoke about the intersection between her experience working in public office and her Latina identity. The lecture is part of Hispanic Heritage Month and was hosted by the Hesburgh Program in Public Service and the Institute for Latino Studies. 

Limón is a first-generation college student and was born and raised in Santa Barbara, California. She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley and received her master’s degree from Columbia University.

In 2016, Limón won the State Assembly seat and in 2020, she won the State Senate seat. She serves the nineteenth Senate District, which includes Santa Barbara County and part of Ventura County. 

Limón is the first woman of color to be elected from the district to the State Assembly and the first person of color from the district to be elected to the State Senate. 

Although she represents a mostly white voter base, demographics are changing, and “as issues become more complicated and include many different communities, we are starting to branch out to think about who reflects the values that are important for the voters,” Limón said. “With my background, I have felt not just an honor to represent my community, but also a way to bridge stereotypes.”

Women make up just over 30 percent of the California State Legislature, but over 50 percent of California’s population.

Limón said there needs to be “an individual and collective commitment to ensure there are more marginalized communities represented in public office,” and women need to see others they identify with and support in these positions. 

Another problem Limón identified in her community is that, when people think of Santa Barbara, they only think of the pockets of wealth.

“This makes other people in my community invisible,” she said. 

It’s been important as a representative to ensure the voices of the community who aren’t always at the table are elevated and do so in a way that creates more allies, Limón said.

Before she became involved in politics, Limón was a member of the Santa Barbara Unified School District Board of Education, and her educational background taught her about the issues she cares about from a policy perspective. She worked with many students who were the first in their families to go to college and qualified for financial aid. 

“I very quickly understood that the issues that our community cares about weren’t limited to the classroom, because it turns out that whatever’s happening in the community is going to show up in the classroom,” Limón said. 

She became involved with non-profit community organizations to help students, and this motivated her to make the switch from implementing policy to creating it.

Limón said her connection to her community and her large network of students and their families made her a successful candidate for public office. 

She was able to build this network because she grew up in a big household with a large extended family.

“Family has taught me a lot about politics,” Limón said. “There are times when you have to break bread with individuals and not always agree with them.”

Her family also taught her important skills that helped her persevere when running for office.

“My parents always taught me the skills that it takes to work hard to overcome barriers and move forward,” she said. 

Although Limón’s commitment to higher-level education has influenced her policies, she said people assumed that when she got to the legislature she was only going to focus on education, since that was her strength.

“I did go in really focused on education, and I had this history being on the school board, and I cared a lot about it. But what happens when you’re in office is that, sometimes, you don’t get to pick what you work on,” Limón said. 

A year into her term was the beginning of the Thomas Fire. The fire affected Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and was the largest fire in California for six months. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from her district.

“And at that moment, no matter how much I cared about education, I had to turn immediately to become a policy expert in natural disasters,” Limón said.

She explained that she had to use her skill set to tackle different issues.

“I’ve always been a big believer that no matter what you do in life, you have to know how to transfer your professional, academic, intellectual and interpersonal communication skill sets to every environment,” she said. 

Some of Limón’s most important policies have been in different areas not related to her educational background.

“Most of the policy that I’m known for is actually not education,” Limón said. “I’m known for environmental policy, consumer protections, women’s issues and natural disasters.” 

Limón said she hopes to act in the best interest of the communities she serves, and her main goal is to elevate the needs of the individuals in these communities.

“I have adapted to being a leader that the community needs of me, and the community will decide when they no longer need the skill sets and the values that I move forward,” she said.

Contact Caroline Collins at ccolli23@nd.edu.