Presidential race shows evolving gender roles in politics

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File photo of presidential contender Hillary Clinton by Alvin Baez/Reuters

With Hillary Clinton (pictured) and Carly Fiorina running for president, and more women running in local elections, the 2016 race shows an evolving role of gender in politics. Photo by Alvin Baez/Reuters

DES MOINES, Iowa — Carly Fiorina has a husband who quit his career to further hers. Chris Christie boasts of his wife being the family’s top earner. Hillary Clinton is looking to get back into the White House, but this time as president.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, a modern take on gender roles is increasingly on display in both parties.

With two women running for president, a number of high-powered career spouses in the mix and an increased focus on policies to support two-income families, 2016 is shaping up as a different kind of election, said Anne Marie Slaughter, who four years ago wrote a popular essay in The Atlantic on why she left a job in the State Department to spend more time with her family.

“I think what is changing is, this is the year of the family,” said Slaughter, now president and CEO of New America, a Washington-based nonprofit. And that means more attention on “how you support the family with policies for women and men.”

While more women have been running at a state and local level, this is the first time both parties have a woman running in a serious way. This gives former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm reason to hope decisions about running for office are no longer just being made “based on one’s plumbing.”

Compared with her 2008 run, heavy on national security, Clinton this time has heavily stressed issues that are meant to appeal to women and families: health care, pay equality, education, child care, family leave. She says “these aren’t just women’s issues, they are economic issues that drive growth and affect all Americans.”

This is murky territory for Clinton. She has a long record as an advocate of women’s advancement and speaks often and passionately about her baby granddaughter. But her potential Republican rivals have raised questions not only about her husband’s past infidelities but about how she might have contributed to efforts to discredit some of the women known or alleged to have been involved with him. Donald Trump flatly accused her of enabling Bill Clinton’s philandering.

Among Republicans, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has proposed increasing the child tax credit and creating a tax credit for employers that provide family leave. Rep. Paul Ryan asserted his need for family time when agreeing to become House speaker.

Christie says voters are meeting a new generation of candidates with “different types of marriages and different types of relationships than people in the generation before. It really is necessitated by the increasing role and prominence of women in the workforce and by necessity, too.”

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Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, said that in recent years there has been a shift in both how female candidates talk about their personal lives and family-oriented policies.

The political reasons are clear.

“The Democrats have to mobilize the base and the Republicans have to whittle away at the women’s vote,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Support from women, who typically lean toward Democrats, was vital for President Barack Obama, who won re-election in 2012 with 55 percent of female voters, while Republican opponent Mitt Romney won 52 percent of men, according to exit polls analyzed by Walsh’s center. Obama won about the same percentage of women in 2008 as he did in 2012.

The two-career marriages on display in the campaign are in keeping with the rise of women in the workforce. About 58 percent of working-age women were employed in 2012, compared with 38 percent in 1963, federal statistics show. Mothers work at even higher rates — with about 70 percent of women with children under 18 working.

Christie’s wife, Mary Pat Christie, was a former Wall Street executive who out-earned him for most of their marriage. Heidi Cruz, wife of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, is on leave from her job at Goldman Sachs. Jane Sanders is a key adviser to husband Bernie Sanders. And Fiorina’s husband, Frank, was a corporate executive until he retired early to support her high-powered career.

With a more diverse group campaigning, the role of political spouse may get a reboot.

Ex-President Bill Clinton and Frank Fiorina are campaigning in Iowa as potential “first gentlemen.” Many of the other spouses are out on the trail.

The campaign has also gone beyond the usual (and still ubiquitous) sugar-coating of family life of the candidates, as Fiorina discussed the stepdaughter she lost to drug and alcohol addiction, Jeb Bush opened up about the daughter who’s struggled with drug abuse and Christie acknowledged a complicated marital history.

Still, stereotypes tend to die hard. During a recent Republican debate, Christie seemed caught in a time warp back to the 1950s when talking about Los Angeles families dealing with a terrorist scare.

“Think about the mothers who will take those children tomorrow morning to the bus stop wondering whether their children will arrive back on that bus safe and sound,” he said. “Think about the fathers of Los Angeles, who tomorrow will head off to work and wonder about the safety of their wives and their children.”

And then there’s Trump, who has tossed various sexist insults at certain women — saying at one point that a debate moderator had “blood coming out of her wherever” — yet insists at rallies that he would “cherish women” as president.

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