For years, women candidates have been advised to downplay their gender, to dress in a gender-neutral way, and to avoid talking too much about “women’s issues.”
In many cases, this was the right strategy. With public opinion still mixed on women’s political leadership, succeeding in a man’s world often meant masking the fact that you weren’t one of them.
Oft-cited examples include Margaret Thatcher getting speech coaching to make her voice lower and more “authoritative” and Angela Merkel’s androgynous style and reticence to discuss the symbolic meaning of her rise to power. But these highly visible examples are outnumbered by the countless invisible choices that candidates and their advisors make every day: what clothes to wear, how to cut or style your hair, whether to talk about your children (or lack thereof).
Any signal of gender has long been a minefield for female political hopefuls. But as public opinion about women in political leadership has changed, so must the campaign playbook.
One woman who is rewriting that playbook in Europe is Ségolène Royal, who was narrowly defeated in her bid to become French president in 2007. In her recent memoir, “Ce Que Je Peux Enfin Vous Dire” (What I Can Finally Tell You) she exposes the sexism she has encountered throughout her career, which runs the gamut from innuendo to insults and outright discrimination. She also discusses the personal and political toll the adultery of her then-husband (and future President) François Hollande took on her and her political aspirations.
In most places in Europe, such a book would have signaled the end of a political career in the not-so-distant past. Instead, she has leveraged it to launch herself back into the spotlight ahead of a potential political comeback. The release of the book comes as Royal is rumored to be considering putting together a multi-party list for the European Parliament election in May 2019. While she has given herself a January deadline to make a decision, her recent press tour certainly looks like a trial balloon before heading out on the campaign trail.
On the other side of the channel, another woman is reclaiming a sexist trope and using it to her advantage. In 2016, Theresa May was branded a “bloody difficult woman” by Conservative Party veteran Ken Clarke in an off-hand (and unexpectedly on-mic) comment about her leadership bid. The comment prompted a mix of amusement and ire at the time, but May is taking the title and owning it.
Brandishing her credentials for leading the Brexit talks, May said last year that EU boss Jean-Claude Juncker would be the next person to find her a "bloody difficult woman". She recently alluded to the comment again in response to challenges to her leadership from former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, saying there is “a difference between those who think you can only be bloody difficult in public and those who think, actually, you bide your time and you’re bloody difficult when the time is right—and when it really matters.”
While she may not be in an election battle at the moment, she’s in the middle of a nearly constant campaign to keep the top job. She and her advisors have clearly determined that this messaging can work to her advantage.
The recent midterm elections in the United States offer yet more examples of women candidates taking on taboos. A number of women across the country ran attention-grabbing ads featuring everything from on-camera breastfeeding to talking openly about sexual assault. It’s worth noting that a number of those candidates lost, and perhaps the reason they chose to run the ads was specifically that their candidacies were long-shots, and risking controversy in favour of free publicity was worth the gamble.
But for at least some candidates the gamble paid off. 31-year-old Democratic candidate Katie Hill, who released a raw, straight to camera video about her personal struggle over the decision about whether to have an abortion, flipped a Congressional seat that had been represented by Republicans for 25 years.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, hailed as the next great hope for the progressive wing of the Democratic party, opened her viral campaign video with the line “women like me weren’t supposed to run for office.” She also used bold campaign branding that visually reinforced her political outsider status.
There's no one campaign playbook for women candidates in the post #MeToo era. However, the possibilities are opening up for these women, and their advisors, to write their own. As more women candidates take risks with their messaging and positioning, it will help others see where lines can be crossed, boundaries can be pushed, and glass ceilings can be broken.
Eva Barboni is the founder and CEO of Atalanta, a social enterprise dedicated to advancing women's leadership worldwide. She is a campaign strategist with experience managing projects across five continents, including campaign victories in presidential and mayoral elections.