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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Kathryn DePalo
May 4, 2020

Women vs. Women:

Insights from Florida’s All-Female State Legislative Races

 

Susan A. MacManus, Distinguished University Professor Emerita, U. of South Florida

Kathryn DePalo-Gould, University Instructor, Dept. of Politics and Intl. Relations, Florida Intl. Univ

with the assistance of students

Amy N. Benner, graduate student, Dept. of Political Science, Rutgers University

Ana Montes Monto, undergrad., Dept. of Politics & Intl. Relations, Florida Intl. University

____________________________________

“Completely lost is the reality that women are running to win; they have principles, beliefs, and issues that drive their candidacies.”
 

Last year more than 100 women were elected to Congress, prompting some observers to call it the Year of the Woman. Now a record six women Democrats are running to become the party’s nominee for president in 2020. They are, in effect, running against each other (as well as against 17 men).  What happens in an election if you take men out of the picture and pit women against women from different parties?

In 2018, Florida had that happen in 9 state legislative races (3 Senate, 6 House). Apart from the win-loss outcome, what were the women’s experiences? Collegiality or catfight? Party backing or lacking? Try again or one-and-done?

Over the past few months, we interviewed all 18 candidates in these contests (8 Democrats, 9 Republicans, and 1 No Party Affiliation or NPA). Anonymity was granted to the candidates to enhance the candor of their responses—many of which are included in this analysis. While their candidacies took somewhat divergent paths, what is more striking are their points of agreement:

  • It is not easier to run against a woman.  
  • The premise that women are more collegial than men is overstated; opinions are more mixed.
  • Fears for their safety and that of family members, including death threats, were real and are frightening.
  • The age-old tactic of attacking a female candidate’s appearance, while diminished, lingers on even among women.
  • Party support for their candidacy or time in office was disappointing, or nonexistent.
  • First-time candidates were driven to run largely because of an issue(s). All ran against an incumbent and experienced learning curves. All were defeated, but all say they will run again at some point in the future.
  • Local press coverage of their races was insufficient.
  • Support for getting more women in office is strong.

For detailed numeric breakdowns, see Tables 1 and 2 at the end of this column.

Much Easier to Run Against a Woman? No!

A common perception is that running against a woman is easier.  Generally, it’s believed that women “play nice” on the campaign trail.  Nearly half of these women, however, said it made “no difference.” Except for one, most of the others said it is easier to run against men, depending on the candidate and the timing of the run.  Here are some of their comments:

            Easier to run against a woman: “In this red district, I would have lost by a wider margin if I had run against a man. Because both of us were women, it negated gender. The reality was that party was more important than gender.”

                  “I think there is less sexism when the race involves two women with no male candidate. Gender is not up for debate.”

 

                  Easier to run against a man: “Women running against each other requires a very different style. A male opponent can diffuse tension in a race. Women add a lot more tension to it. So, if a campaign features contrasting views on issues, it may be easier to run against a man.”

 

                  “Since it was the Year of the Woman, running against a male would have allowed me to better contrast myself with a male than with another female candidate.”

 

      No difference: “Running against her was not much different than running against a man. Because it was a general election, we differed by party, age, issue position, more than gender.”

Are Women More Collegial Than Men? Not Necessarily!

It is often written that women are more collegial than men when serving in legislative bodies. Several incumbent female legislators agreed but qualified their assessments. For example:

“In legislative bodies, women are not necessarily more collegial but are more committed to getting things done. Women run to do something; men run to be something. That said, women can be vicious to each other when running against each other. They only see that there’s room for one.”

There was far less agreement about female collegiality on the campaign trial. Many of these candidates mentioned “noncollegial” actions by their female opponents ranging from “blatantly lying about my record,” “calling me a four-letter word,” “attacking one of my supporters,” “demeaning my age,” “criticizing my religion,“ “being overly sharp with me,” to “bad mouthing me in small settings.”

Women in general, however, have long recognized they tend to be harder on each other, but they still don’t like it. Said one:

            “Ego and pride do not go well with anyone. That said, women’s uniqueness is that they have a bent toward influence. They are multi-taskers and used to relational interactions. But women can be very catty and manipulative, but that is not the best use of one’s talents and gifts.”

Fears for Personal and Family Members’ Safety? Yes.                           

Many of these candidates, regardless of party, were shocked at the different forms of attacks launched against them or family members either on the campaign trail or on social media or both. (These did NOT come from their female opponents.)  Nearly half articulated specific threats—ranging from death threats and the cornering of their children in public locations to threats to “blow up your kid’s school.”

Fears of physical attacks by overly aggressive rally goers or protestors were also mentioned by several of these women. At one fundraiser, protestors surrounded a candidate, grabbed her cell phone and shouted at the candidate for her stance on a hot button issue. The most heated hostilities usually surfaced regarding a candidate’s position on guns, abortion, or funding for public schools:

            “They said I should have been aborted, and I received death threats because these are the types of issues I am drawn to. I fear for my personal safety doing this job and for my family.”

            At a public forum, an attendee, in a text conversation witnessed by a campaign aide, proclaimed, “Wish I had brought my gun” when the texter caught sight of the candidate that person opposed.    

“Social media has given people the ability to feel that they can say anything and hide behind their computer persona, so it’s definitely tougher, people are meaner, but it’s tougher on the children of the women running for office. It’s hard to hide the blog post or a column. People feel that they have the ability to say anything and be mean about it.”

 

Several of the women attacked on social media intentionally did not respond, often against the advice of supporters or campaign consultants:

      “On a personal note, my character, integrity, and honesty were attacked. My response was rarely to defend myself on social media. It becomes my word against theirs. I did not want to give my opponent any more publicity or enhance their name recognition with voters.” (This from an incumbent)

 

Women Still Subject to Attacks on Their Appearance? Yes!

Female candidates have long complained that too much attention is paid to their appearance and not enough to their issue positions.

“It is very frustrating when a candidate’s powerful message, values, and beliefs get lost because of conversations about women v. women, especially age, clothing, etc.”

“I did notice that the press and social media consistently used the worst photos they could find of me.”

While there are signs this practice is diminishing, it is not yet gone!  Interestingly, comments about candidate appearances come from supporters as well as detractors.  Several candidates talked about well-intentioned volunteers who, like it or not, offered tips primarily on whether the candidate’s attire was professional looking and/or age appropriate.

            Women are more critical than men. One older woman pulled a candidate aside after a presentation and told her she was dressed like she was going to a Michael Jackson concert. It was mostly about her hair. “The woman told me to soften my hair and wear more curls. Another woman who was helpful in my campaign would always give me feedback at events—dress too tight, heels too high, or ‘you look like a candidate today.’”

Negative comments usually had a generational or cultural twist to them. Their “advice” was not always heeded by the candidates:

 

            “I wear a lot of color. I hardly ever wear black and it is well known that in Tallahassee, most people wear dark colors, like grey or black. I remember my consultants telling me I needed more dark colors to look the part. I wore too much pink. I said I am who I am.”

 

First-Time Candidates: Largely Unsuccessful but Willing to Run Again? Yes!

Six (33%) of the 18 candidates (5 Democrats and 1 NPA) were first-time candidates—2 Millennials (born 1980-94), 2 GenXers (born 1965-79), 2 Baby Boomers (born 1944-64).  All six women ran against an incumbent. All six lost.

What made them run?   Five of the six had strong feelings that the incumbent was either ignoring an important issue or taking the opposite position from that preferred by the challenger. Four of the six also ran because no one was going to run against the incumbent, leaving voters with limited choice.

The issues driving these Democratic women to seek office were primarily gun control, adequate funding of public schools and teacher pay, abortion, LGBTQ rights, the opioid epidemic, and the environment. Examples of rationales:

 “I came at this from a public health crisis situation. The opioid crisis in our community, gun violence, housing situation, education with our charter schools taking so much money from the public schools…I felt I had an obligation to our community to run for office.”

 “I felt [the incumbent] was not representing minorities in the district, and felt democracy was not working because [the incumbent] had run unopposed so often. I wanted voters to have a choice.”

 

“I ran because nobody else was going to run against her. So, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘Well, I guess it’s you.’”

 

Steep Learning Curve; Underestimation of Costs. Many of these first timers admitted entering their races as underdogs but with the hope they could be competitive through hard work, meeting with voters, and pressing what they considered winning issues. In looking back, they acknowledged an underestimation of the time, energy, and money it would take to run a competitive campaign. They also did not anticipate the toll a lengthy campaign would take on their families or the lack of support they would get from their party.

           

“I knew it would be an uphill battle from the start. I didn’t realize the strain it would put on my family. I experienced a big learning curve.”

“The truth is that my year and a half on the campaign trail meant our family took a little hit both financially and time away from my child.”

 

Willing to run again.  Five of the Democrats who ran and lost were first-time candidates. (Overall, Democrats lost 6 of the 8 races in which they competed. Of the two who did win, one upset a Republican incumbent, the other won re-election.) There were no Republican first-time candidates; 8 of the 9 running were incumbents, one had run unsuccessfully before. Two Republican women lost (an incumbent and a challenger).

 A common complaint of women’s political organizations is that women are less likely than men to run again after they have lost.  NOT TRUE HERE!  None of these losing candidates ruled out running for office again, although several acknowledged they would wait awhile, and one pledged to run for another position, but not for the state legislature. For another, the reality of party registration and voting patterns in her area were seen as roadblocks now but not forever.

 

      An older challenger said she would definitely try again. At recent events, people came up to her and asked if she was going to run again. When she said, “Yes,” many said, “Thank God.”

 

“I am open to running again. It’s like having a baby, the delivery. It is too soon to ask. It is a huge financial impact, a huge emotional toll.”

 

“Now people are trying to talk me into running again for all sorts of positions—city council, county commissioner. Maybe I will run again someday but not for this seat. It would absolutely have to be the right position, one for which I have passion, before I run again.”

 

“Maybe down the road, but not in 2020. No Democrat can win here.”

 

General Disappointment With Party Support? Yes.

 

Some women expressed positive feelings toward the parties, but it was primarily toward local party activists who helped these women with their campaigns:

 

“At party gatherings locally, I asked, ‘Is my running against [the incumbent] a good or bad idea?’ Everyone said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

 

Generally, however, these women expressed disappointment in the level of support they got from the state parties—from recruitment, to campaign advice, to financial assistance. Among the Democratic women, for example, there was a broad recognition that they were running from difficult-to-win, heavily Republican districts. But they had trouble comprehending why the party was not more supportive of someone willing to run with the party label in that type of district. There was also considerable criticism from younger candidates who felt they were not being taken seriously. Republican women were more critical of the party’s failure to recruit more women to run.

 

 “I did get some advice from leading party operatives—'Be more humble.’ They tried to talk me out of the race.”

 

“I got more help from supportive progressive groups… but the [Democratic] party gave me NO help, no advice, didn’t even return phone calls. You would think they would recognize that this contest was for a state house seat, not dog catcher. Ironically, they kept asking me for money but then gave me none!”

 

“[Party leaders] always encourage more young women to run, but then are resistant to our ideas, not wanting to change the status quo.”

 

“I think it’s unfortunate that there is a pattern that there are more Democrats than

Republican women. As a Republican that is not something I like.  To some degree, it’s still an old boy network.  There’s a pipeline of people coming through the system that will make it easier for men to get recruited.”

 

Press Coverage?  Could Have Been Better!

The general criticism from most of these women was that local press coverage was far too limited. Some expected coverage would be better than usual because of publicity about the Year of the Woman and the rather unique circumstance of two women running against each other in the general election for a state legislative post.  From the press’ perspective, the limited coverage of most of these races stemmed from the fact that only 2 of these 9 contests were highly competitive (one in the Senate; one in the House). 

 

Coverage of candidate forums and debates, of which there were few, generally got good reviews. But the overall lack of debates got disses, especially from first-time candidates who believed they would have benefitted from more exposure. In one race, the incumbent simply refused to debate, effectively limiting the challenger’s opportunity to build name recognition. Another complaint about debates was one that recently surfaced in the Democratic presidential debates—the practice of asking questions the moderator casts as limited to a “yes” or “no” answer. 

 

            “I absolutely hated and will NEVER do another debate set up exclusively as a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ lightning round. Issues are never black or white. I really resent debates set up with ‘gotcha’ formats.”

 

A few women made specific complaints about the ideological bent of several newspapers, reflected in their regular news coverage and editorial endorsements.  A few also criticized press stereotyping of female candidates:

 

 “The story [the reporter] wanted to do was lame. He wanted to do a piece on the ‘unconventional women’ running in our race.”

 

Support for More Women Candidates? Strong!

 

Aside from their competitiveness, a common thread running through all the interviews was a desire to see more women (Democrats and Republicans) running for and getting elected to the Florida Legislature. The reasons for this wish varied. For some, it is the belief that women are more respectful of each other and more action-oriented (doers more than talkers).  For others, it is to pave the way for their daughters and granddaughters.

“As females, we tend to be more respectful of each other, not too much into attacking and more about the issues.”

 “I think more and more women should get involved. It is still a man’s world. I am not a feminist but when I look at pictures of political meetings (from local to international), I see all these men. I have daughters and granddaughters. I want a better future for them.”

This goal of electing more female state legislators was evident in the behavior of some candidates on the campaign trail. Several acknowledged they had proceeded cautiously, expressly stating they did not want to go negative against another woman because they wanted more women in office. At campaign’s end, others took joy in reporting they had maintained civility with their female opponent throughout the campaign:

“Early on, our interactions were quite cordial and that changed only a little as the campaign progressed.”

“I received an anonymous tip about my opponent’s family. I chose not to do anything. I was not going to tear another woman down. I wanted to build women up and use integrity.”

“My opponent never ran negative ads against me. Our race was positive, not negative.”

Several incumbents also mentioned collegiality with women from the other party, but respect for differences:

“Even though I have conservative issues, I still work with women Democrats in the House a lot. We agree more than not. All I want for any woman who comes up here is to feel they can use their skill sets to accomplish what they want in Tallahassee…Women do not tear down each other, even if we disagree. We need to get more women here.”

Conclusion 

Some might argue that the dynamics of women vs. women races are no different than those characterizing contests featuring two male candidates. This analysis of the experiences and opinions of these 18 women running for the Florida Legislature in all-female general election contests has proven that argument to be shallow. At a minimum, none of these women is satisfied with the fact that in 2019, only 30% of Florida’s 160 state legislators are female.

____________________________________

NOTES: The authors are deeply appreciative of the willingness of these 18 candidates to share their experiences and insights with us. 

The Woman v. Woman general election contests in the analysis are Florida Senate races—Districts 18, 28, 40; Florida House races—Districts 17, 31, 36, 54, 60, 78.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Table 1: Demographics of 18 Candidates in Woman v. Woman Races for State Legislature

 

DEMOGRAPHICS

 

Democrat

Republican

NPA

Total

Age/Generation

       

Generation Z

0

0

0

0

Millennials

1

2

1

4

Generation X

4

3

0

7

Baby Boomers

3

4

0

7

Silent Generation

0

0

0

0

Race/Ethnicity

       

White

4

7

0

11

Black

0

0

1

1

Hispanic/Latino

2

2

0

4

Asian

0

0

0

0

Other

2

0

0

2

Marital Status

       

Single

5

1

1

7

Married

2

9

0

11

Children

5

7

1

13

Children under 18

4

3

1

8

POLITICAL EXPERIENCE

 

Democrat

Republican

NPA

Total

First-time candidate

       

Yes

5

0

1

6

No

3

9

0

12

Incumbent

       

Yes

1

8

0

9

No

7

1

1

9

 

 

 

Table 2: Candidate Assessments of Their Woman v. Woman Races for State Legislative Seat*

Assessment

Democrat

Republican

Total*

Easier to run against a woman?

     

Yes, easier to run against a woman

0

1

1

No, easier to run against a man

3

2

5

No difference

2

4

6

N/A

3

2

5

       

Reticence to Attack Female Opponent

     

Yes, didn’t want to attack; want more women in office; collegial

2

5

7

No; ready to attack/defend myself

2

0

2

Really no opinion expressed; didn't interact much

4

4

8

       

Violence on Campaign Trail (Multiple Responses)

     

Death threats

0

1

1

Social media threats/attacks

2

3

5

Physical confrontations

0

2

2

Threats on family

0

2

2

Destruction of campaign materials

1

0

1

None

5

1

6

N/A

1

3

4

       

First-time Candidates - Reason for running

     

Issues

2

0

2

No one running against opposition party

1

0

1

Both

2

0

2

       

Losers: Run again?

     

Yes, but later

3

0

3

Yes, but it took a toll on my finances and family

1

1

2

Yes, but maybe a different office

2

0

2

No

0

0

0

       

Press Coverage?

     

A lot

0

0

0

Some (a few articles, TV programs, radio)

5

2

7

Some (debates/forums)

1

2

3

Hardly Any

0

1

1

N/A

2

4

6

Notes: N/A (not available) responses reflect insufficient detail on the topic. *Excludes NPA candidate to protect anonymity. Her responses are incorporated into textual analysis