An influx of women candidates helped turn the midterm elections into what many observers have dubbed  the “Year of the Woman.”

But despite a tide of voter sentiment favoring women, the winners got to Congress or a statehouse not by defining themselves as women’s candidates, but instead by sidestepping issues typically associated with their gender, from equal pay to reproductive freedom.

That’s the finding of a recent study on women and politics conducted at the University of Maryland’s Rosenker Center for Political Communication & Civic Leadership. The study examined 2018 political ads to understand how woman defined their candidacies and qualifications for office.

We found that, despite the momentum of the #MeToo movement, women were careful in playing the gender card. They avoided what are often construed as women’s issues that are associated with gender equality such as abortion, pay equity, sexual violence and harassment.

We studied general election ads produced by women challengers running for the U.S. Congress or for governor of their state. We used 52 ads from 25 candidates – nine Republicans and 16 Democrats. Although there were more Democratic women vying for office than Republicans, we made sure to balance the ads by party (29 ads by Republicans and 23 ads by Democrats). All of them were produced by candidates in what we defined as competitive races, meaning 10 points or less separated the candidate and their opponent on Sept. 30, 2018.

A dominant theme that crossed both Democratic and Republican ads is the candidate’s own power and achievements in careers that have historically excluded women. These ads showcase these women’s individual strengths that seemingly prepares them for the rough-and-tumble world of U.S. politics.

In her “Ring” ad, Democrat Sharice Davis, who was running for a U.S. House seat in Kansas, featured her hitting a punching bag – she used to be a mixed martial arts fighter. She identified herself as a “fighter” who will “never back down.”

Democrat Elaine Luria ran for a U.S. House seat in Virginia and chose to highlight her military career in the Navy. In her “Sea Change” ad, she is shown piloting a warship. The ad emphasizes that she was “deployed six times” during her military career.

Republican women similarly communicated their strength with words of power: “Proven,” “Fight” and “Fearless.”

Republican Martha McSally, who ran in Arizona’s U.S. Senate race, identified herself as the first woman to fly a fighter jet in active duty in her ad “Deployed.” Republican Young Kim, who ran for the U.S. House in California, defined herself as a “self-made” business leader who promised to never “give up” in an ad titled “My Community.”

One candidate in our study developed an ad exclusively focused on women’s reproductive rights (Dr. Kim Schrier’s “Door” ad – U.S. House candidate from Washington). The other ads, produced by Democrats and Republicans, glossed over the gender inequities women continue to face. Instead, they imply that gender equality has already been achieved because the candidates have single-handedly shattered gender barriers.

Republican women, more than Democrats, treaded carefully around issues of women’s equality. After all, a majority of Republicans sided with Justice Brett Kavanaugh and President Trump after they were accused of sexual misconduct.

We saw this play out in the fact more Republican women candidates aligned themselves with powerful men than did Democratic candidates. One reason they may have done this is to lessen the perception of their candidacy as a threat to voters accustomed to male leadership.

For example, Republican Carol Miller, who ran for the U.S. House in West Virginia, ran an ad featuring male veterans attacking her Democratic opponent Richard Ojeda for challenging the country’s “greatness.” At the end of the ad, she is flanked by two muscular men – one a coal miner and the other a Marine.

Some explicitly ran on Donald Trump’s coattails. And Tennessee’s U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn featured an ad showing her hugging the president and boasting about his endorsement of her.

Other Republican candidates used gender stereotypes to demean their opponents. For example, in her “Walk” ad, Elizabeth Heng, running for the U.S. House in California, challenged the masculinity of her opponent, Representative Jim Costa, by depicting him walking the streets in red high heels as the voice over mocked: “Costa’s walking in Nancy Pelosi’s shoes.”

These ads reveal that using their gender as an advantage, trying to promote women’s issues, or calling out sexist behavior are still a challenge for women in politics.

In 2018, as The Washington Post reports, some candidates charged their opponents with “sexist” behavior while others more likely used “surrogates” to issue such accusations. Candidates stayed away from such controversial accusations in the ads we studied.

Rather than tackle the inequalities that women confront in public and private, many candidates in the University of Maryland study showed they could make it in a man’s world – throwing punches, shooting guns, steering warships, piloting planes, running corporations, and aligning themselves with powerful men.

The question yet to be answered is will these newly-elected women avoid or tackle gender equity issues in their political leadership roles.

The authors are associated with the University of Maryland. Shawn Parry-Giles is a professor of communications; Aya Hussein Farhat and Ske de Saint Felix are doctoral students, and Matthew Salzano is a graduate student. Contributing to the column were Jenna Bachman, Darrian Carroll, Lauren Hunter, Naette Lee, Hazel Feigenblatt Rojas and Sarah Vick. 

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