Hillary Clinton’s evolving gender appeals

In 2008, Hillary Clinton made her first bid for the US presidency and did not overly emphasize her gender. Senior adviser Ann Lewis called this decision the “biggest missed opportunity” of the primaries and said Clinton “ceded the mantle of barrier-breaker entirely to Barack Obama”. Prior to and during the 2016 Democratic primaries, Clinton sought to reclaim that mantle. In December 2015, Clinton released the ‘44 boys is too many!’ ad, featuring little girls reading aspirational letters written to Clinton. In a September 2015 interview and again in a primary debate in February 2016, Clinton pushed back on the idea that she was an establishment candidate by saying, “I cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president”. In April 2016, Donald Trump said, “If Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5% of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card”; in response, Clinton sold physical “women cards” and raised $2.4 million in 3 days. Clinton capitalized on her gender.

Moving into the general election, there was a shift in Clinton’s gendered appeals. Clinton focused less on what was new about her, and focused more on what had been there all along: a persistent focus on children, women, and families—issues women voters typically place a higher value on than men. Her history of work on the Children’s Defense Fund and Children’s Health Insurance Program, a celebration of her proclamation in China of “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights,” and her other endeavors were echoed in advertisements, rallies, and numerous DNC speeches, including in running mate Tim Kaine’s speech: “When you want to know something about the character of somebody in public life, look to see if they have a passion that began long before they were in office, and that they have consistently held it throughout their career…Hillary has a passion for kids and families.” During the third presidential debate, Clinton also went arguably further than any presidential candidate has in defending women’s reproductive rights. All of this reframed the gendered focus away from Clinton’s personal gender and toward direct appeals to women.

When it came to attacking her opponent’s record on his treatment of women, Clinton did not shy away. During the third debate she attacked Trump’s character and sent a clear appeal to women, “Donald thinks belittling women makes him bigger. He goes after their dignity, their self-worth, and I don’t think there is a woman anywhere that doesn’t know what that feels like.” 

A key culprit in undermining Trump’s pull with women was Trump himself, and Clinton capitalized on Trump’s words. Her ‘Mirrors’ ad and the super PAC ad ‘Quotes’ featured Trump’s past derogatory comments on women, paired with shots of women of various ages and races. The ‘Quotes’ ad was particularly effective with women. After watching the ad, Trump’s unfavorable ratings among women went up by 19 points relative to those who did not see the ad; for men, the shift was 1 point. During the third debate Trump said, “Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” and minutes later called Clinton “such a nasty woman.” Clinton supporters reappropriated the label by wearing “Nasty Woman” T-shirts, flooding social media, and Clinton surrogate Sen. Elizabeth Warren used it as a rallying cry during her speeches.

Perhaps Trump’s most damaging moment with women came with the Access Hollywood recording, in which he described kissing and grabbing women without their consent because, “when you’re a star…You can do anything.” During a rally, Michelle Obama delivered the most direct response from the Clinton team to the “Trump Tapes.” Having Obama deliver this attack, instead of Clinton, was necessary to some extent. Bill Clinton was not running for president, but Hillary is nonetheless his wife and his legacy in this area carries baggage. By having a strong surrogate who has no baggage in this domain make the attack, Clinton’s campaign could more safely land an effective blow. In response, Glenn Beck said Obama’s speech was “the most effective political speech since Ronald Reagan”.

Clinton appealed to women, but only some embraced her appeals. According to CNN exit polls, Clinton had a sizeable 12-point gender gap, and she had an advantage over Trump with women of color, married and unmarried women, and Democratic and Independent women. However, she did not win over white women and there was no surge in women voters. Despite this, Clinton stayed the course and focused on women in her concession speech, stating: “to all the women…who put their faith in this campaign and in me: I want you to know that nothing has made me prouder than to be your champion.”