When Women Run…..Women Win!

by Dotty LeMieux on April 4, 2013

So here is the good news, when women do run, they win. But with these things in mind. We’ve seen it all, and we know what works. Check it out and leave your comments.

Women in Office Today:
Is there a difference between the way a woman runs and the way a man runs for public office? The answer is yes, no and it depends. This is an evolving issue. After the Year of the Woman, 1992, when record numbers of women were elected to Congress, there has been steady progress in the numbers of women elected to local, State and Federal offices. But we are still not at parity. In 1971 women constituted 4.5 percent of state legislators. Today (as of March 2013), they are 24.1 percent nationwide. Of the 100 largest American cites, just 12 have women mayors.

5 out of 50 Governors are women (down from 8 in 2008), and 10 are Lieutenant Governors (no change). In Congress, women hold 97 House seats and 20 out a 100 Senate seats. (http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/fast_facts/levels_of_office/documents/elective.pdf) This is an improvement over 2008, when the first version of this article ran, but it is not enough. Not by a long shot.

Remember, women make up 51% of the total population of this country.

Special Pitfalls for the Woman Candidate?
The rise of women was more dramatic in the early years (post 1992) and has tapered off. Is this because women are no longer seen as a novelty? Or because they are not running in as great a number as their male counterparts?

Probably both. What the literature on the subject shows is that there are very few differences in the way women run for office than the way men do. It may have been that at one time women tended to run more positive campaigns, be seen as more compassionate and interested in “women’s issues” (childcare, health care, gun control and health care access) But these are issues that break down more along Party lines and geographic differences than gender.

However, that does not mean there are not special pitfalls for the female politician. There’s an old adage about the heyday of the big budget musical: don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards… and in high heels.”

Women running today might heed that admonition. A woman still has to work a little bit harder for those votes. The stereotypes, although not so obvious, are still in play.

Here are some tips for the female candidate from the seemingly trivial to the seriously trenchant.

Ten Tips for the Female Candidate:

1. Grooming. OK, let’s get it out of the way. All candidates need to pay attention to their personal image. Men with frayed shirts and food on their tie are no more appealing than women whose lipstick is smeared or hose is unraveling.

Women still get judged more harshly on their appearance than do men. A real headline in the New York Sun read: Stylists Interpret Messages of Senator Clinton’s Accoutrements in the most recent Presidential primary. (Jan 25, 2007 New York Sun)

With that said, here are a very few grooming I’ve amassed “on the trail” that can help you make a good first impression on voters, the press and your potential donors: Keep your hair fairly short or if you really can’t live without it above the shoulder, pin it up for formal portraits or campaign events. Pant suits are fine (ala Hillary) and calf length skirts work well. Skip the stilettos, and if you tend to be generously endowed, dress to minimize the cleavage. You want the voters and the pundits to remember the words that come out of your mouth not what spills out of your blouse. As for make up, subtle is fine.

2. The other extreme. Because women often feel they must be tough to make it through a campaign and be taken seriously, they sometimes go to the other extreme. Severe haircuts, button shirts and rigid posture. They won’t crack a smile for fear of seeming frivolous or seeming to trivialize important issues. Men can come off as arrogant or posturing and people tend to forgive them as long as they like their message, but women do have to walk a finer line.

So, be yourself, maintain your sense of humor and humanity while showing your firm grasp of the issues and willingness to tackle problems with both hands

3. Issues. Don’t go out of your way to look for “women’s issues,” but don’t shy away from them either. You may find that your primary issue, while important, is not the main one your constituents are talking about. Don’t be afraid to switch gears when need be. In a recent local representative seat race, the female candidate, a nurse practitioner, was focused like a laser on single payer health care; that was her passion and that got her into the race. But the main issue turned out to be protecting a large tract of open space land and wetlands. Her slogan “for our health, community and quality of life,” fit this new issue perfectly and allowed her to run with it while keeping access to health care on her list of top bullet points leading to a win and a second term without challengers.

4. Going negative. It’s still true that women are more reluctant than men to “go negative,” that is until their opponent does it first. A popular city council candidate feared being perceived as a word that rhymes with witch if she went after her opponent. That is until he attacked her for a minor inconsistency in her material. Then off came the gloves; his background working for developers was unmasked and she sailed to victory. It’s not negative if it’s true, relevant and fully documented.

5. When women run against women. Increasingly, the races are between two women. This new trend makes for interesting campaigns. Women can still be “good ol’ boys” and when you are the underdog, a newcomer or a progressive taking on the system, you need to be prepared to point that out. If your opponent is someone you personally like, and it is just on some key issues that you differ (and you probably wouldn’t be in the race, if these issues were not very important to you), remember, a campaign is not personal. You can point out the reasons voters should vote for you and not her, without turning into a pit bull.

You may not enjoy best friendship status once the campaign is over, but if you feel strongly about the issues, you need to make your best case to the voter, despite who the opponent is.

6. Your opponent is the “good ol’ boy.” He’s taking you to task for inexperience, seizing on trivial inconsistencies or gaps in your resume. Don’t be afraid to point pout how you juggled home, family and your ambitious husband for those missing years, and all that volunteer work you’ve done? Tout it. Then use your best advisors to craft a message that shows you know policy and can deliver as well or better than the man.

First time women candidates do face tougher challenges, because of their perceived lack of experience and need to be prepared to raise sufficient funding to offset it, to point out the negatives of their more experienced opponent and to keep emphasizing the experience they do have, whether political or not. Even taking on entrenched incumbents can be done with the right set of tools.

While reluctant at first to “go negative” a first time Supervisorial candidate taking on a long time male incumbent, finally took the gloves off when she learned her opponent was treating his public office like campaign central, in violation of the law. She vowed to “let the sun shine” on local government and won in a landslide.

Another neophyte candidate went after her opponent’s do-nothing tenure in office and squeaked out a narrow win, but a victory all the same, in a local special district race.

7. Raising money. This is something I have found women are reluctant to do. It’s an ego thing. That is, they often feel it is egotistical to ask for money for their own campaign. (Ironically, women make tremendous fundraisers for non-profit causes and even other candidates). They are running out a deep sense of altruism and wanting to make the world a better place for future generations. This is why groups like Emily’s List have popped up. Women often need some extra prodding, and training, to start raising the necessary funds to get elected. Remember if you can’t raise enough money to get your message to the voters, the best intentions won’t help you on election day.

8. You’re the boss. I have found that women candidates hate to say no. When spouses, relatives and their hair stylist tell them what their message ought to be, they listen. And of course they should. But they also need to listen to their own conscience and the experienced advice of their campaign consultant. Men also have this problem, but they tend to pick out one or two self-described “experts” and demand their consultants take the advice offered.

9. “When women run, women win.”

Many women still believe they don’t stand a chance against seasoned male counterparts. Studies have shown when women run, they do as well, if not better, than the men. They can raise as much money, they can get the same share of the vote, and the bias toward them as women is not nearly so pronounced as it was once. (Women Candidates in American Politics: What We Know, What We Want to Know, Kathleen Dolan, Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, presented at the 2006 Midwest Political Science Association, meeting) Reviewing my own won-lost record over the past ten years, I see that of my women candidates three fourths won their races, while just slightly more than half of the men did.

But perceptions can paralyze the would-be candidate. When women run, they win; the trouble is they don’t run often enough.

10. Your special positives as a woman. Stereotypes can help the woman candidate, in being seen as more compassionate, honest, even “liberal” in a time of corruption and lack of confidence in government generally. A Democratic woman taking on a Republican man has several built in advantages, if she knows how to use them. Again, raising money, not being afraid of “going negative” and emphasizing your real life experience, can all help a new comer to local politics.

Women candidates and elected officials will make up more and more of the American political landscape in the future. This is a good thing. If you’ve been concerned about some of the issues raised in this article, I hope you will now feel more comfortable about running. Your chances are just as good as the next guy.

Dotty LeMieux, Principal at GreenDog Campaigns, winning for women since 2002.

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