The Waves

Female Candidates Finally Feel OK About Being Female Candidates

More women are running for political office during the 2018 midterms than ever before, and they’re radically changing the narratives about what it means to be a female candidate.

Splitscreen of Kelda Roys and Krish Vignarajah breastfeeding in their campaign ads.
Kelda Roys and Krish Vignarajah breastfeed in their campaign ads.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kelda for Governor 2018 YouTube and Krish for Maryland YouTube.

Ever since President Donald Trump was elected back in November 2016, women have been re-energized—even radicalized—in the political sphere. Gloria Steinem says she’s never seen anything like it in her eight decades on the planet.

As the 2018 midterm elections approach, women are not just preparing to vote—they’re hoping to be elected. The number of women seeking political office this year has broken records. At least 476 women filed to run just for House seats in the 2018 election—that’s nearly 60 percent more than the previous high in 2012. And 235 of those women won their primaries, which was up from 167 in 2016 when the previous record was established.

But in addition to that quantifiable jump in the number of women on the ballot, there’s also been a qualitative difference in how female candidates have marketed themselves. Multiple women have shown themselves breastfeeding in their campaign ads, and they’re also showing their tattoos. They’re wearing jeans and T-shirts, and getting ultrasounds on camera.

To mark this historic shift, the Waves, Slate’s podcast on gender and feminism, has teamed up with Glamour magazine for a special episode to analyze the 2018 midterms before you head to the polls. Below you’ll find a lightly edited conversation between Waves regulars Hanna Rosin, co-host of NPR’s Invisibilia, and Christina Cauterucci, a staff writer for Slate, in addition to Celeste Katz, senior political reporter for Glamour, and Latifa Lyles a former Obama administration official, vice president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and a D.C. Democratic state committeewoman.

Want the full discussion? Listen to the Waves via the audio player below, or get the show in Apple Podcasts, Overcast, SpotifyStitcher, or Google Play.

Christina Cauterucci: It seems like for a lot of candidates, this year has sort of marked an opportunity to stop pretending that they’re just like any male candidate, that the experience of living as a woman is sort of incidental to their qualifications for political office, and they’re making it more of a part of their affirmative argument for themselves. Celeste, you’ve been following a lot of these races. Which candidates have stood out to you as far as self-presentation is concerned?

Celeste Katz: There’ve been a lot of women that have done some innovative things. A lot of us have looked at this idea of authenticity on the trail that as you say, it’s no longer sort of a hindrance [to be a woman], although, obviously, it never should have been considered one. But now it’s not just OK to be a woman. It’s important to be a woman.

And being a woman means maybe you’ve had experiences that men haven’t had or that you consider problems in a way that men don’t consider them. Being a mom isn’t something that, traditionally, voters have lacked questions about. There’s research that shows that female candidates are questioned by voters as to whether they can “handle” the rigors of public life while taking care of their families.

Now, you see a lot of women out there breastfeeding [in political ads], but also talking about being a mom and being a family person as a qualification, as an experience. And that is something that’s been really prominent in this race. Not every candidate who does this wins, though. We had one candidate in New York, Zephyr Teachout who was running for state attorney general, who was pregnant during the campaign in the primary. She even had an ad where she was undergoing a sonogram while talking about what a good attorney general she would be.

You could literally hear the baby’s heartbeat while she’s talking about how awesome she’d be at this office. It was something that I don’t believe I had seen in any of the 85,000 campaigns I’d covered before this.

Hanna Rosin: You used the word authentic. It’s so interesting, and that stuck out to me because it felt—it feels performative. And I love it. I’m not saying performative in a bad way, but to me, what’s intoxicating when you sit down and watch these [campaign] videos is that they’re, like, performing motherhood on the ads. It’s so in your face. It’s not the way, like, the male campaign ads just have their family around. They’re, like, in your face, [Here’s] my breastfeeding, and my ultrasound. It’s very performative of, I wouldn’t say femininity, but just, like, femaleness in a way which feels very badass to me.

Cauterruci: Yeah. I hesitate to use the word gimmicky. But that was the first word that sort of popped to my mind when I watched two candidates who are breastfeeding in their ads. Both of them lost their primaries, but one was running for Maryland governor, the other was running for governor of Wisconsin. And the fact that both of them were breastfeeding in their videos, it seemed slightly awkward, like they were trying to make it seem like, Oh, this wasn’t planned—I just had to breastfeed at this exact moment that my commercial had to be filmed. We couldn’t have timed it around the baby’s feeding schedule.

It was clear to me that they had probably thought a lot about this because they’re sharing this intimate moment with their baby on camera. Clearly, you’ve planned it. And same with Zephyr Teachout. I don’t think I’ve even seen a political candidate’s belly button before, much less watching them get a medical procedure in a doctor’s office. And so, I agree with you, Hanna, it was kind of shocking to me.

Latifa Lyles: Yeah. The statement part of it is really clear, and if there’s time for folks to make a statement, I guess people are like, This is it. This is my time to show my boob on camera. The fact that there has to be such a dramatic display is, I think, in some ways a little bit of a backlash against [the idea that women] need to show up as gender neutral as possible.

Historically, a lot of women have, down to how they dress. They don’t talk about their family or family responsibilities because of the fear that it might seem [like an impediment]. Just like when you walk into a job interview, you don’t start off by saying, So, I have five kids, and I’m expecting another one. There’s this conversation about whether that’s even OK for people to ask.

There’s what we call the “motherhood penalty,” where whether it’s getting a job, keeping it, wages, or running for office, this is really … the contrast to that is so stark. And I think it’s important that it’s so stark because the penalty is paid so much every day.

Rosin: For me, I was really scared. Like, the penalty is real—the cultural, visceral stereotypes are real. My mind was racing when I watched these ads because I thought like, Do it! Don’t do it! Do it! Don’t do it!

Lyles: And also as somebody who just, like, threw my hat in the ring for local politics, that is absolutely something that I would never do nor would I advise someone to do.

Rosin: What’s the “that”? Be a woman or breastfeed or what would you never do?

Lyles: On some level, I’m also one of these people who’s very private, and it just seems like a very intimate, private moment. And the sort of oversharing culture—I have family members who [say], like, Don’t take pictures of your bare belly when you’re pregnant, that’s crazy! There’s definitely this foundation that I have for my upbringing of modesty when it comes to bodies and even putting your kids out there. That’s the other piece of that I was shocked about too. I was like, No, because now you’re going to be like “the breastfeeding candidate” and that’s all anyone’s going to ever talk about. You’re the breastfeeding candidate, which is what we’re talking about right now.

Katz: Maybe that’s the point, though? The fact is it is getting attention, and a lot of people got a lot of attention through these ads that they might not have gotten. And of course, that’s just one part of the story. But, I think people sort of also, at least observationally, if this was their year to do it, this was going to be the year. This was going the time to sort of turn the tables.

Rosin: Why?

Katz: Well, because women have been so much at the forefront of politics in terms of the #MeToo movement, in terms of just a backlash to Donald Trump, to sort of translating the passion and the intensity of the Women’s March into action. Walking with a sign for a lot of people wasn’t enough to express [themselves] or to take action on how they felt about a lot of stuff the Trump administration was doing. And that was way before Brett Kavanaugh got involved in the picture.

Cauterucci: Celeste, you wrote in a piece about women candidates that if women don’t confront questions about having kids and balancing their life at home with their life in public, they will take a hit with voters. I wonder if some of these women, by coming out and saying like, Look, I’m a woman. I’m a mom. Here’s what my life looks like. I’m not gonna pretend that I’m not at home surrounded by primary-colored children’s toys all the time and a burp cloth on my shoulder. They’re trying to get out ahead of some criticisms that they might face or some stereotypes that might be projected onto them.

Katz: Yeah, I think that there is a reality that for women candidates, those questions with voters are different than for men. You see men featuring their loving wife and family in their commercials all the time. And it’s never like, God, how’s he going to make it work? Being a dad, being in public office, it’s just too much. You don’t get that dynamic, but with women, some people are like, But what about the children? It’s really not fair. So you do have to talk about that.

There was a big case even in this cycle with a woman who’s running for Congress out on Long Island in New York who convinced the [Federal Election Commission] to let her use some of the money that she’d raised in donations for child care. That was a big deal.

Lyles: The other point I think is important is that in addition to standing out, it’s like how do I relate to voters and how do I get people out in the midterms? How do I relate in a way that is outside the party norms? And this is one way that people have reached out outside the norms in cases where women are running without endorsement of the national party or without the coffers and the financial backing. And there is this sense that we have to change and not be the—no one wants to be the establishment right now because that’s a losing message for every town in America.

Rosin: What is the best possible scenario of all these ads, and the worst possible scenario? The best possible scenario [as I see it] is we change the language around political presentation. We make it more real. We allow women to be themselves. It’s a kind of authenticity, like, it leads to authenticity, because eventually, women can be more honest about the realities they face and what their life is like and they can handle it. So, there isn’t this kind of unspoken question around whether women are able to do power and children at the same time. What’s the worst possible scenario?

Katz: I think it’s exactly the stuff that you described—that people have a bad reaction to it. They think it’s sort of cheap, that it’s sort of like, Let me exploit my adorable baby to get you to vote for me because I really want to go to Congress or I want something from you and I am using my personal story to tug at your heartstrings and to get it.

Rosin: No, but I mean, like spin it out even further. That’s what happens in this and so therefore what happens for women in politics?

Lyles: I think that the broader question about whether we can use identity or at least embrace identity as an asset in politics is still on a lot of people’s minds, especially following the 2016 presidential election. But at the end of the day, it’s the identity, or the gender, or the being the woman itself that is so hard for people to get around … which sucks and is cynical.