To the Point: Women presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton campaign

August 20, 2007

University Park, Pa. -- Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is far from the first woman to seek the nation's highest office. From Margaret Chase Smith to Elizabeth Dole to Carol Moseley Braun, a few notable women have run for president during the past 45 years. But until now, none had ever built the momentum to be a party's frontrunner.

Nichola D. Gutgold, associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State's Lehigh Valley campus and an expert in campaign and political speechmaking, has studied the lives, communication styles and presidential bids of women candidates, as well as the rise of Clinton. In her book Paving the Way for Madam President (Lexington Books), Gutgold explains how these women who have run for the office set the stage for future women to run. In 2005, Gutgold co-authored the book Elizabeth Hanford Dole: Speaking from the Heart, which cited the former senator and presidential candidate as a groundbreaking candidate who smashed stereotypes and laid the groundwork for a future woman president.

Now, she says, Hillary Clinton is on new footing. While women seemingly no longer face as difficult a time in reaching higher offices, Gutgold explains what's different about Clinton's campaign from her predecessors.

How is Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign being perceived differently than past women candidates for the office?

Gutgold: Her campaign has a different look, feel and sound to it. As a rhetorician, that's what I look at. Hillary's is very different for a number of reasons. One of them is that there is simply not an emphasis on her gender by any of the media, by her or by the other candidates. I don't know when that shift occurred, because in 2004 Carol Mosley Braun made a bid, and granted it did not have the momentum that Hillary Clinton's campaign has. But still in 2004 there was this, "Oh, and she's a woman" message. I just don't get that sense with this campaign.

One of the things that I think has contributed to that is that most of the candidates are similarly experienced. For example, I'm thinking of Bob Dole, someone who is such a Washington institution. The quintessential appearance of a politician -- tall, older, experienced, been in Washington for a quarter of a century -- none of the [Democratic] candidates really has that background. I also would think because you have Barack Obama, another outsider to presidential politics because of his race, there's been a lessening of the impact. Maybe if all the other candidates were white, older males, there would be a sense of this "other." But they are all kind of "others."

I also think it's due to Mrs. Clinton's own savvy. In the YouTube debates I was struck by how they are all very astute about what they need to do with the media in order to be successful. Of everyone, Hillary Clinton was most astute, calling people by their first names and being funny. She got it, that it was not about her as much as it was about people asking the questions.

She's running a very modern and media-savvy campaign. She announced her candidacy online. She created a living room-like scenario and said, "I'm from the middle of America and I want you to get to know me." She's smart about how she presents herself. She's been very smart about creating an interpersonal relationship with her audience, which has become very important because of the media age.

There was some eye-rolling over the living room setting and casual tone of her candidacy announcement. Some people said it seemed put on. Did you see that?

Gutgold: I thought it was an earnest beginning on her part and one that will prove to be smart. A lot of our young voters are looking to the Internet. She creates a lot of vibrancy for herself by doing that, especially because she is politically not a fresh face. By using modern media, it makes her look modern.

The setting didn't bother me. It is a very stately room where she made her announcement, but I wasn't put off by that. I think the public is sophisticated enough to know that nothing is an accident in politics. When John Edwards went to New Orleans and announced his candidacy, we know he didn't happen to be just walking through and say, "Hey, I'm going to run for president." It was staged, and I think even the most unaware American realizes it's not an accident in politics.

Aside from the fact that Clinton has no doubt exponentially more money behind her and more exposure than previous women candidates, is there something she is doing different in her campaign?

Gutgold: I think she's not mentioning her female-ness. I think other women tried not to as well, but Hillary Clinton, I think, has been helped by the media being a little tired of that. Because there have been women leaders, it is not such an exciting terrain. We've seen women in high places -- Condoleeza Rice, Madeleine Albright -- and we know it is possible.

How about the way she presents herself? Does that tend to neutralize that issue?

Gutgold: I think she is very sophisticated in the way she presents herself nonverbally. She's consistent. When she was First Lady, there was so much said about her hairstyle. Unlike her bid for the Senate when she wore only black pantsuits and changed the color of her blouse, with her presidential bid, she's allowing herself to be more feminine in her color choices and wears bright colors. But there is a steadiness about her appearance. Her hair always remains the same. She looks like a 60-year-old woman. She doesn't look like she's trying to hide her age. I think that's all very important because there's nothing to say about it. Her clothing isn't so notable or so fashionable that it ends up being a story. In the research that's been done on female candidates, the hair, the hemline and the husband have been the three H's that the media has zoomed in on. With Hillary, the only H is Hillary. Her hair is the same, her hemline isn't notable and we all know her husband.

Speaking of her husband, do you sense any net positive or negative effect now that Bill Clinton is out on the campaign trail for her?

Gutgold: I think it is a tremendous positive for her. I think even the biggest foe of Bill Clinton would concede that he may be the greatest politician of our time. Anyone who has him on the trail with them is better positioned.

Do you sense that there has been a change in attitude in the United States? In the introduction to your book, you point out that in many Western countries there have been very successful women leaders, but we haven't taken the idea of a woman commander-in-chief very seriously until now.

Gutgold: I think the woman who is able to win hasn't run yet in the United States. I do think there has been an attitude shift that a woman is electable in America, whereas 10 or 20 years ago it wasn't as accepted. I don't think there's a question of if we will vote for a woman anymore. When a woman runs who has what any person needs to win, she will win. It's just a matter of all the ducks being in a row. Gender doesn't seem to be urgent now. We know women can lead. So when the right woman with the right credentials runs and connects with the American voters she is going to win. I don't think her gender will hold her back.

So where with past women candidates their gender was a central issue, it's become a non-factor on the day-to-day campaign trail for Clinton?

Gutgold: I think the whole gist of it is that in this campaign, it strikes me that Hillary Clinton is doing a very good job of deflecting gender as her big contribution. It seems like it is not an issue. She occasionally uses it to make a joke. In a debate she said something to the effect of "I know about men who misbehave," and it's funny, but it's not all that she has to put on the table. In the YouTube debate she said, "There isn't much doubt in anyone's mind that I can be taken seriously." That's a pretty dramatic statement. She's not approachable with the question. Pat Schroeder, who ran in 1988, was asked, "Are you running as a woman?" and she replied, "Do I have a choice?" I don't think anyone dare ask Hillary that question. I think that would be the end of the interview. She doesn't want to talk about that.

I love a book by William Golding called The Spire. The idea is that these men work for years, their whole lifetime, building a dome that they will never see. But they do it because they know their children and grandchildren will enjoy it. I think when it comes to a woman being elected president we need to see it that way. We need to pay tribute to those women who worked very hard to build the acceptance, and regardless of Hillary's outcome, whether she's elected or not, she has worked very hard to pave the way. I don't think that's her feeling. Her goal is to become elected -- I think she sees it, rightfully, as something to win or lose.

What would we call Bill if Hillary was elected?

Gutgold: People are saying the First Gentleman. I think First Lady is an antiquated title and we'll see the whole thing shift. If a woman is elected the new title will be First Spouse and it will become interchangeable.

On a slightly different topic, you mentioned the YouTube debates, and as someone who looks at the rhetoric, how did you receive this new way of questioning the candidates?

Gutgold: I was very excited by the YouTube debates, That's new territory. It had entertainment to it -- a snowman asking about global warming. That's intriguing. As people who watch TV, we wish for that, because not much can surprise us. We're into visual effects and exciting things and when it's just a bunch of people in suits answering questions they've rehearsed a dozen times, how can that be interesting?

Do you think we will see more things like the YouTube debates?

Gutgold: I do. It's more interesting to watch, and we want our TV to be interesting. We can be bored easily because we're used to great effects on television, so we want more. I think the Internet is only beginning to show what it can do for things like debates and the introduction of candidates. It is pretty exciting. I think it can turn on the younger people, our students who may not be engaged in the political process, because they are so engaged with technology they might decide to say, "OK, what is that?"

  • Penn State professor Nichola Gutgold's book 'Paving the Way for Madam President' looks at the campaigns of women presidential candidates.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2010