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Exploring the Role of Gender in Politics



Interactive panel discusses meaning of masculinity, femininity in 2016 campaign

What impact does gender have on the 2016 presidential election?

On November 2, less than a week before Election Day, Notre Dame faculty members Christina Wolbrecht, Susan Ohmer, and Jason Ruiz led an interactive panel, entitled “Media and Gender Politics in the 2016 Election,” to address this question. Held in the Browning Cinema in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, the discussion attracted a full theater of students and lasted about an hour and a half.

An Associate Professor of American Studies, Dr. Ruiz is affiliated with the Gender Studies Program and the Institute for Latino Studies. He opened the discussion with his own definition of gender appropriate for the topics presented, describing it as a “social and cultural meaning given to roles in society” and that it “varies over time and place as a social construct.”

Each member of the panel then took a turn at center stage, presenting a topic and playing a short video clip to demonstrate his or her point. The other two members of the panel then had a chance to discuss the topic and give their own input. Finally, the audience was invited to comment on the ideas presented in an effort to make the discussion interactive.

Ruiz spoke first, selecting the topic “masculinity in the 2016 election.” He stated that the question of masculinity has been present in elections since the time of George Washington. He then showed a clip from the primary debate in March 2016 of the “small hands” slur directed at Donald Trump by Marco Rubio, focusing on Trump’s reaction to it. The panel then discussed how Trump is embodying a “corporate, businessman masculinity” with his brash attitude and display of consumption.

When the audience had their chance to respond, one student commented, “It was interesting how Trump has to assert himself, as if he has to prove his manliness.” Dr. Ruiz then described a “masculine crisis in America to be a ‘real’ man” and suggested that maybe Trump feels the need to emulate this because a woman, Hillary Clinton, is running against him.

Christina Wolbrecht, Associate Professor of Political Science, spoke next. Her topic focused on the question “Is gender relevant to politics?” She discussed Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s difficulty in the election “walking the line of gender.” The video clip depicted a moment late into the primaries in which Trump criticized Clinton for playing the “woman card,” to which Clinton replied, “If fighting for women’s healthcare … is playing the woman card, then deal me in!” Wolbrecht described how Clinton has tried not to boast about being the first woman presidential candidate while also promoting “women’s issues.” Clinton, she said, is often attacked for being too cold for a woman or conversely, for acting too motherly for a politician.

During the audience’s time to respond, one student observed that Clinton appears to being “using her womanhood to her advantage” now in the 2016 election compared to the 2008 election. Wolbrecht pointed out that in 2008, the question was whether a person of color could reach the top political office. Now that President Obama has answered that, the question now revolves around gender rather than race, so Clinton has been more focused on gender.

Associate Professor of the Film, Theater, and Television Susan Ohmer spoke last, focusing on Clinton’s experience as a First Lady and how that affects her presidential campaign. First Ladies throughout history have been American examples of femininity, Ohmer explained, and “are flashpoints of change in femininity.” She cited examples of Jackie Kennedy and Laura Bush in their roles of First Lady and how they affected style, fashion, and attitudes of American women. Then, she built on Wolbrecht’s description of Clinton’s struggle to be both professional and feminine. In the video clip shown, CNN reporters discuss the first presidential debate and in particular Clinton’s performance. Ohmer pointed out how the male reporters “praised Clinton for not reacting visibly to comments against her,” which she found patronizing. “It’s still saying women are governed by their emotions,” said Wolbrecht in her response to the video, and Ohmer added, “We need to think critically about what our perceptions are.”

After attending the event, freshman Holly McGrath told the Rover, “I was actually very disappointed with the event. I had gone into the room thinking it would be an objective analysis on the significance of having a woman nominee and how that has influenced the election and will continue to influence future elections. Although it was intriguing to discuss the ways Hillary has or has not used ‘the woman card,’ for the majority of the time the discussion revolved around comparing Trump’s personality to Hillary’s personality.”

Monica VanBerkum is a freshman majoring in the College of Arts and Letters and living in Cavanaugh Hall. During her free time, you can find her running the East Bank Trail or procrastinating her laundry. Contact Monica at mvanber1@nd.edu.

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