For­get the pantsuit, this is the year of the strong woman

Fighters, moun­taineers throw gloves in the ring

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Lind­say Sch­nell

Katie Hill has heard the words “you’re in­tim­i­dat­ing” and “you’re re­ally in­tense” so many times in her life, the 31-year-old has lost count. As a teenager, she found her­self per­plexed by those ac­cu­sa­tions, of­ten think­ing, “What am I sup­posed to do with that?”

The an­swer, it turns out, is run for of­fice. On Tues­day, vot­ers in Cal­i­for­nia’s 25th District just north of Los An­ge­les will have a chance to send Hill, a first-time can­di­date who has spent most of her adult life work­ing in non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions that aid the home­less, to Congress.

“This can be hard,” Hill says in her cam­paign ad, which shows her dressed in ath­letic wear as she freeclimbs a nearly ver­ti­cal moun­tain. “Not as hard as run­ning for Congress when cor­po­ra­tions are back­ing the other guy ... It won’t be easy, but I’m up for the chal­lenge.”

Women across the coun­try are run­ning in record num­bers this year, many in fu­ri­ous re­sponse to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. But it’s not just the num­ber of women run­ning that makes 2018 dif­fer­ent – it’s how they’re run­ning. Af­ter decades of be­ing told to look, sound and act a cer­tain way, fe­male candi-

“I’m just go­ing to com­pete the way I am.”

Re­becca Trais­ter, author

dates are buck­ing the tra­di­tional con­cept of electabil­ity, proudly show­ing off their phys­i­cal strength in cam­paign ads that fea­ture them box­ing, moun­tain climb­ing, scuba div­ing and more.

“The thing that’s so great about these ads is they’re not talk­ing about their strength, they’re just show­ing them­selves in very strong po­si­tions and sit­u­a­tions. So the sub­lim­i­nal mes­sage is, ‘She’s a badass woman!’ ” said Pa­tri­cia Russo, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Women’s Cam­paign School, a non­par­ti­san, is­sue-neu­tral train­ing ground for women in­ter­ested in pol­i­tics, lo­cated at Yale Uni­ver­sity in Con­necti­cut. “What peo­ple see are can­di­dates who are strong, con­fi­dent and self-as­sured. Com­mu­ni­cat­ing that is half the bat­tle when run­ning for of­fice.”

For Hill, it wasn’t about ex­plic­itly show­ing off phys­i­cal strength in her bid to un­seat Repub­li­can in­cum­bent Steve Knight. “What I knew is that if I was go­ing to run, I was go­ing to run as me,” said Hill, who started rock climb­ing in 2006 and used a drone to film her ad.

The 2018 elec­tion is be­ing hailed as “The Year of the Woman, Part II,” a ref­er­ence to 1992, when women then ran in record num­bers af­ter a Supreme Court fight that saw Jus­tice Clarence Thomas con­firmed to the court de­spite cred­i­ble al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

But 1992, which re­sulted in four fe­male sen­a­tors head­ing to D.C., has noth­ing on 2018. A com­bined 260 women are on the bal­lot Tues­day in U.S. House and Se­nate races; 16 oth­ers seek gov­er­nor­ships. Al­most 3,800 women are run­ning for state leg­isla­tive seats. And this cy­cle, they look dif­fer­ent.

In Ohio’s 14th Con­gres­sional District, lo­cated in the north­east cor­ner of the state, Demo­crat Betsy Rader hops on a bike in an ad and talks about when she was hit by a car as a child, which led to back prob­lems, a spinal fu­sion and what in­sur­ance com­pa­nies could now con­sider a pre-ex­ist­ing con­di­tion. She uses it as a jump­ing-off point to prom­ise she’ll fight for health care if she beats Repub­li­can in­cum­bent David Joyce, who has held the seat since 2012.

Demo­crat Sharice Davids is a for­mer MMA fighter run­ning against Repub­li­can in­cum­bent Kevin Yoder in the 3rd District in east­ern Kansas. In an ad in which she dis­cusses fight­ing for progress – she men­tions her Na­tive Amer­i­can her­itage and that she was raised by a sin­gle mom – Davids pulls on box­ing gloves and spars with a male op­po­nent.

Not that long ago, a woman show­ing any type of phys­i­cal ag­gres­sion dur­ing a cam­paign would have been un­think­able. For decades, fe­male can­di­dates were told to ap­peal to vot­ers by be­ing la­dy­like, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously prov­ing they were “tough enough” for the job. It’s a dif­fi­cult line to strad­dle, said Re­becca Trais­ter, an author who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on women and pol­i­tics through a fem­i­nist lens. If the po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship model is his­tor­i­cally that of a white man, then peo­ple who don’t fit in that box need to con­vince vot­ers that they’re like a white man, Trais­ter ex­plained. En­ter fe­male can­di­dates in pantsuits.

But af­ter 2016, when a can­di­date many deemed un­electable as­cended to the pres­i­dency against Hil­lary Clin­ton, the pantsuit queen who also tried to show­case a warm, grand­moth­erly side, women started ig­nor­ing pol­i­tics’ ar­chaic rules.

“This is em­blem­atic of a greater les­son: Con­form­ing to the sys­tem isn’t go­ing to save you from its pun­ish­ments or its bi­ases,” Trais­ter said. “Sat­is­fy­ing a sys­tem that doesn’t make room for you or re­spect you doesn’t spare you from its abuses. There’s been this rev­e­la­tion of, ‘Oh wait, I can con­form to all these old ideas of what lead­er­ship is sup­posed to look like, and I can still lose to an un­pre­pared ding-dong … so why am I try­ing to com­pete on that field? I’m just go­ing to com­pete the way I am.’ ”

At EMILY’s List, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that re­cruits and en­dorses pro-abor­tion rights Demo­cratic women can­di­dates, Pres­i­dent Stephanie Schri­ock re­called her days as a cam­paign man­ager, when she ad­vised a male can­di­date to cover up his tat­toos, wor­ried that they’d turn off vot­ers. This fall, when she saw Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­date MJ He­gar’s ad where she ex­plains how she uses tat­toos to cover the scars she ac­quired when her Air Force he­li­copter was shot down in Afghanistan, Schri­ock “re­ally felt like some­thing had changed – and I was proud, be­cause we’ve had lots of mo­ments like that in this cy­cle.”

He­gar, run­ning in north­ern Austin, Texas, makes no ef­fort to hide her tough­ness. On her web­site she writes, “What kind of Demo­crat is it go­ing to take to win TX-31? An ass-kick­ing, mo­tor­cy­cle-rid­ing, Texas Demo­crat. And that’s ex­actly the kind I am.”

It’s not just Democrats es­chew­ing po­lit­i­cal stereo­types, ei­ther.

In Ari­zona, U.S. Se­nate can­di­date Martha McSally boasts in a cam­paign ad about her 26 years in the Air Force, her honor in be­ing the first fe­male fighter pi­lot. McSally, who rep­re­sents Ari­zona’s 2nd Con­gres­sional District, is in a tight race with Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Krys­ten Sinema, who rep­re­sents the state’s 9th Con­gres­sional District. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who en­dorsed her cam­paign, has said of McSally, “she’s the real deal, she’s tough.”

Ads that show off sub­tle or overt phys­i­cal strength res­onate be­cause “vot­ers are look­ing for some­one who’s gonna fight for them,” Schri­ock said.


Con­gres­sional can­di­date Sharice Davids is a for­mer MMA fighter.


Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­date Katie Hill of Cal­i­for­nia works with non­prof­its – and climbs moun­tains.

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