Exchanging jabs like white, male candidates, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle challenge gender and racial stereotypes
As Chicago voters for the first time see two African-American women vying for mayor, experts say gender and racial stereotypes remain — even if Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle are doing exactly what most white men would do in a campaign.
Generally, when female political candidates attack their opponents, it can be surprising to voters because of age-old gender stereotypes, said Alice Eagly, a psychology professor at Northwestern University who studies gender stereotypes and how they play out in leadership positions.
“Women … are the nicer, kinder, more socially skilled sex. Men are the more assertive, competitive, risk-taking sex,” she said. “So in general that is disadvantageous for women (seeking) leadership roles because we collectively regard leaders as assertive. (Women) are not supposed to be dominant. And that might generate dislike” from voters.
As the April 2 runoff election nears, former federal prosecutor Lightfoot — who would also be the first openly gay mayor if she prevails — and Cook County Board President Preckwinkle have traded jabs at each other in debates and other appearances. They clash on policy while also hitting more personal notes, with Lightfoot accusing Preckwinkle of being part of Chicago machine politics, and with Preckwinkle criticizing Lightfoot’s position as partner in a corporate law firm representing the interests of big business.
“You would expect that of two male candidates,” Eagly said. “They’re political rivals at this point.”
Race is also a factor in this election, said Ashleigh Rosette, associate professor of management and organizations at Duke University.
The candidates “acting in a way that tends to advance each one of them politically should not be a surprise to anyone,” Rosette said. “It’s a surprise because you have two black women doing it.”
African-American women tend to garner images of strength, in contrast to the more meek stereotypes of white women, Rosette said. That could work in the candidates’ favor in this election, depending on the context, added Rosette, who is also a fellow at Duke’s Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Social Sciences.
“It’s almost like simultaneously taking out the racial gender component, but then adding it back in,” she said, because Lightfoot and Preckwinkle are two black women facing off against each other, with no white or male candidates. “It’s taking it out because it’s a constant, but putting it back in because (African-American women) are not usually in this role.”
How voters react and the outcome will be “fascinating to watch” and “fodder for researchers like me,” Rosette said.
The mayoral race could also represent how some stereotypical images are changing, particularly in politics, said Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, which addresses gender and race stereotypes at its Ready to Run seminars that help women prepare for political candidacy or to work on campaigns. There, they learn about what messaging works for voters in the face of these stereotypes and how they are evolving, Dittmar said.
“There used to be more of a sense that women face greater backlash for going negative,” which politicians tend to do because it’s proven to help them win campaigns, Dittmar said. “But I’m not sure this is the case in this race.”
“With more women getting into office … you see some chipping away at these stereotypes, so they’re not so firm in voters’ minds,” she said. “But all that doesn’t mean they’ve gone away. We’re certainly not in a place … where voters are gender or race-neutral.”
In the Chicago mayoral race in particular, Lightfoot and Preckwinkle are both prominent women who’ve held high-profile leadership roles, so “I’m not sure that would hurt them,” Dittmar said, adding that voters want to see candidates stand up for themselves because they want leaders with a “backbone.”
“I think at the end of the day, what they’re doing is what most candidates do,” she said.
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