Forget the pantsuit, this is the year of the strong woman
Fighters, mountaineers throw gloves in the ring
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.