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When Women Run

.... Women Win

By  Dotty E. LeMieux

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/or, 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. Yet, parity still does not exist.

In 1971, women constituted 4.5 percent of state legislators.  Today the numbers in Congress are at a record high, with 17 women Senators and 78 women in the House of Representatives.  

Pitfalls for the Woman Candidate

The rise of women running for office has been dramatic since 1992, even though it has tapered off some in recent years.  However, the 2008 Election year, experienced the largest increase in modern times

Recent literature indicates that there are very few differences between the way women and men run for office.  At one time, it was thought that women tend to run a more positive campaign, are more compassionate, and more devoted to “women’s issues,” such as childcare, health care, and gun control. However, it is more likely that these are issues that break down along Party lines and geographic differences, more than around gender.

Under any circumstance, the first and foremost goal of the female politician must be to “get elected.”  This goal demands that she be careful of the pitfalls related to the female candidate’s campaign.  There’s an old adage about the heyday of the big budget musical: don\'t forget that when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, Ginger “did everything he did, but backwards... and in high heels."  Under every circumstance, it may be true that woman have to work a little bit harder for those votes. The stereotypes, although not so obvious, are still in play.  

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.

However, it is likely that women still get judged more harshly on their appearance than do men.  A real headline in a recent 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 tips 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, keep it appropriately subtle.   

2. Avoid the extreme.
Because women often feel they must be tough to be taken seriously throughout the campaign, they sometimes get extreme.  Severe haircuts, buttoned up shirts and rigid posture.  They won’t crack a smile for fear of seeming frivolous or of trivializing an important issue.  Men can come off as arrogant or posturing and people tend to forgive them as long as they like their message. Women do have to walk a finer line.  

So, don’t be weak and certainly not extreme. 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” during a campaign…  that is, until their opponent does it first.   A popular city council candidate feared being perceived as negative if she went after her opponent. Notwithstanding, once he attacked her for a minor inconsistency, the gloves came off; 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. Women running against women.  Increasingly, races are between two women.  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. Remember, a campaign is not personal. You need to point out the reasons voters should vote for you and do that without turning into a pit bull.

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 out 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.  

7. Raising money.  This is something I have found women are reluctant to do. 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.  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.  

9. “When women run, women win.”  This slogan has been attributed to Emily’s List, National Women’s Political Caucus and Yale Women’s Campaigns school. Many of the misconceptions about women’s chances of winning political office are just that: misconceptions.  The sad thing is many women themselves have bought into these misconceptions, making the decision to run a more difficult than it needs to be. But perceptions can paralyze the would-be candidate. When women run, they win; the trouble is they don’t run often enough.

10. Special positives as a woman. Stereotypes can help the woman candidate, in being seen as more compassionate, honest, and even more honest and trustworthy in a time of corruption and lack of confidence.  A Democratic woman taking on a Republican man has several built in advantages, if she is prepared to use her advantages wisely.  

Women candidates and women elected officials will make up more and more of the American political landscape in the future.  If you are a women who has been concerned about running for office because of the very issues raised in this article, I hope you will now feel more comfortable and run.  Your chances are just as good as the next guy’s. If you are the guy running for office in that same district, you\'d better be careful, your opponent is a woman!

Dotty E. LeMieux, Principal, Green Dog Campaigns and Communications.
Green Dog Campaigns is a full service consulting firm, specializing
in women and first time candidates in Northern California.  We have
a 75% win rate for women and first time candidates.   You can find
us at www.greendogcampaigns.com You can
reach Dotty at Click here to contact this Author

Winning Campaigns Online
   2009 AAPC Conference Issue
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