Behind the rhetoric – female politicans are still searching for an equal voice

Our class readings inspired me to analyze the role of female politicians through a rhetorical lens. Interestingly, Sutherland and Sutcliffe (1999) found that the rhetorical tradition developed into a much narrower meaning throughout the centuries, one which “confined it to the public discourse of men of the ruling class.” (p. 10). This phenomenon is still alive today in the role and image of 21st century female politicians.

The First Lady ultimately set the stage for women in the public sphere, as they took on the role of compassionate supporters and motherly figures (Griswold, 2007). Despite the success of the women’s movement in the 1970s, the public image of female politicians is influenced heavily by the idea that political rhetoric is primarily ‘masculine.’ Griswold (2007) explains that “a woman, unlike a man in politics, must balance addressing her gender with a masculine and powerful rhetoric. If a female politician upsets the balance by coming across as too forceful, then she in untrustworthy, and in contrast, if she is too ‘feminine’ then she is deemed unfit to lead” (p. 3). Although female politicians have come a long way, media coverage reveals that lingering sexism towards female candidates is still very prevalent.

Sarah Palin is arguably the most sexually objectified female candidate to date. Throughout her political campaign, news sources emphasized her physical appearance and publicized her past participation in beauty pageants. The media used Palin’s former pageant career to dismiss her as a serious candidate with news anchors referring to her as the following: “The race for the U.S. presidency is not just one more beauty contest,” “Caribou Barbie,” “Presidential Barbie” and “Malibu Barbie” (Winfrey and Carlin, 2009, p. 330 – 331). The media’s objectification of Palin led the public to discredit her political agenda and view her as incompetent.

On the other hand, Hilary Clinton executed a much more mature and commanding image to the public. However, her sometimes “intimidating nature” and decision to pursue a more dominating leadership style was seen as fair game to many media outlets. She was often identified in the media as not being ‘feminine’ enough with headlines identifying her as “calculating,” “overly ambitious,” “cold,” “scary” and “intimidating” (Winfrey and Carlin, 2009). The media often criticized her attempt to assert a traditionally ‘masculine’ rhetoric and viewed her husband, Bill Clinton, as a source of necessary aid and strength.

In Canadian politics, this issue was brought to life after two female NDP MPs came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against two of their Liberal counterparts. It is interesting to note that the rhetoric surrounding this case is largely focused on the fact that Parliament doesn’t have a formal process to deal with these types of allegations. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has called for a new policy to deal with harassment issues, but the fact that there wasn’t one already in place is extremely troubling (to say the least). Canadian Parliament seems to be living in another decade when it comes to the treatment of female staff and officials in the workplace. Despite the bickering and finger–pointing between the New Democrats and the Liberals, Canadians are expecting more from all members of Parliament and want to see action and change so that future issues of harassment are properly addressed.

After diving deeper into the rhetoric surrounding Sarah Palin, Hilary Clinton and Canada’s recent harassment issue at Parliament Hill, it is clear that female politicians are continuously struggling to fit into a public sphere that the media and public deem as ‘masculine.’ To move beyond this issue, future political leaders need to openly discuss issues of sexism and harassment, as well as adopt a rhetoric that is neither defined as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine.’ It is also crucial that journalists, PR professionals, members of the public and politicians hold the media accountable for acts of sexism against female (or male) politicians. It will be interesting to see where the future of politics goes and if it is possible to create a gender-neutral public sphere for political debate and societal change.

Thanks for reading and please feel free to share your thoughts.




Griswold, D. (2007). The politics of speech: engendering the public sphere. Retrieved from Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Sutherland, C. M. & Sutcliffe, R. J. (1999). The Changing Tradition: Women in the History of Rhetoric. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Winfrey, K. L. & Carlin, D. B. (2009). Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage. Communications Studies, 60, 326-343.


5 thoughts on “Behind the rhetoric – female politicans are still searching for an equal voice

  1. Chelsey, I really enjoyed your post and your use of the feminist and masculine lenses to explore rhetoric.

    I am currently researching feminine influence in the workplace for organizational theory and female stereotyping, as we know, continues to be an issue. Research has proven that due to their traditional gender roles, women are viewed as “warm”, translating directly into incompetence and weakness. Women who choose their careers over having a family are in turn viewed as cold and calculating. As being a politician is also a job, it may be inferred that these feelings are also applicable to politics.

    The feminine rhetoric is said to employ passive terms, using ambiguous language which decreases their perceived power. Masculine rhetoric however uses aggressive and/or direct language, playing to the audience’s rational side.Ii find it fascinating that the female rhetoric is perceived as being less effective however as I would think that an emotional pull would be more effective and trustworthy than aggression. Emotions tend to be perceived as more honest, something that is sought after in politicians.

    Whether it is actually being employed by a woman or not, this form of softer rhetoric is characterized as “feminine”. I believe throughout Hilary Clinton’s career, she has successfully employed both masculine and feminine voices, an example that you can have a mix of them both.

    Overall, great post Chelsey. It certainly led me to some critical thinking.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Chelsey – fascinating topic. It’s interesting and worthwhile to compare Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton. What I find interesting is that Palin came to the forefront in 2008 after Clinton’s failed run for the Democratic nomination. In many ways the media branded Palin as the anti-Clinton, casting her in a more stereotypical female role than they did with Clinton. One might argue, however, that the image of the “mama bear” that Palin cultivated along with her early difficulties around policy played into the stereotype. But there is no question that the media ran with it and took great pleasure in comparing the serious, wonkish Hilary with “Caribou Barbie” Sarah (just remember the classic SNL skit).

    From my perspective, the media doesn’t quite know how to portray Hillary Clinton. There have been many attempts to feminize her, such as asking questions like what designer she prefers when she was Secretary of State ) to playing up her new role as grandmother. It will be interesting to see how the next two years unfold if she runs for president. She may shatter the ultimate glass ceiling, but many will believe that it’s because she behaves more like a male politician that a female one.


  3. Great post. I concur with your argument and think back to the earlier readings on Social Interactionism and the many identities we wear in order to get our messages across. Knowing how people reacted to Sarah Pallin, Hillary and her team deliberately would have packaged the candidate towards the more masculine. Caught in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum, she was critiqued for being too masculine as a result. It’s an unfortunate double-edge world we live in and quite honestly, I’m not sure there’s an easy way out. Feminists did us no favours by asserting we are equal. We are different, though should have equal access to opportunities and pay. Last week’s White Ribbon campaign reinforced much of your thinking as the campaign worked to communicate messages about gender stereotype and it’s dangerous consequences. I wonder if we are on the edge of some kind of transformation as sexual harassment stories appear daily in the news: be it Ghomeshi, the Liberal MPs or Cosby. Is this being generated by the victims, or by the news cycle that makes it the “topic du jour”? Or, are we just living in a premediated mass media culture, as this week’s readings suggest, that perpetuate our own anxieties? Or as Meyrowitz suggests, it is all about the power of the media after all? Just look at that example about a male Australian TV host who wore the same suit everyday and no one noticed. Yet, viewers were always quick to criticize the female co-host for her outward appearance. Not sure if this is still connected to rhetoric, but the feminist doctrine is everywhere in communications theory and I was glad to see that perspective in the week’s readings.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Very interesting post – thanks for sharing! I’ve always admired Hillary Clinton, and am always amazed at how differently she is treated in compared to males in similar political roles. A few years back she was criticized for how she looked, to which she confidentially responded “I haven’t got time to worry about make-up”. Despite carving out her own political spot outside of her husband’s shadow, the media constantly goes back to the 1998 Monica Lewinsky scandal. This past July the story made headlines again when a BBC reporter brought it up during an interview, and although she handled the situation extremely gracefully, I wonder if that same reporter would have pushed Bill Clinton the same way.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you everyone for your insightful comments – they really got me thinking about my original blog post and whether or not gender ambiguity would be costly to female candidates. Since all men and women have both masculine and feminine communication traits it seems impossible to extract those qualities from any human being since it is what makes us fundamentally who we are. This leads me to believe that the issue isn’t in the fact that men and women display both traits, but that the media and society has a tendency to place very strict boundaries around where it is appropriate for these masculine and feminine traits to shine.

    LINDELLINC – your comment that we live in a double edged world where we are “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” really struck a cord with me. It sheds light on the fact that most voters are more likely to vote for a female face that appears “feminine.” Research has shown that any hesitancy in assigning gender to a female candidate often causes voters to turn away. Therefore, it seems that there is no way to get around assigning “feminine” and “masculine” traits/qualities to politicians because we tend to do it natural through Symbolic Interactionism and our tendencies to classify the social identities of ourselves and others.

    ERIKAKELLAND – you also bring up an interesting point that Hilary Clinton successfully employed both masculine and feminine voices. Perhaps her ability to encompass both feminine and masculine qualities aided in her success and helped the audience better understand and accept her political identity.

    SARAHLETICIAMATTHEWS – you brought up the fact that although Hilary Clinton made an important mark for women in politics the media still targets women as if they are out of place. This topic is definitely thought-provoking to say the least, hopefully a few more Hilary Clinton’s will come out of North American politics and help shake up our perceived notions of gender identity in the political sphere.


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