Gender in Political Communication Research: The Problem with Having No Name

Vanessa Beasley. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.

When Betty Friedan (1963) published The Feminine Mystique, she stirred a political revolution by writing about “the problem that has no name” (p. 15). Friedan wrote about women like herself:

On an April morning in 1959, I heard a mother of four, having coffee with four other mothers in a suburban development fifteen miles from New York, say in a tone of quiet desperation, “the problem.” And the others knew, without words, that she was not talking about a problem with her husband, or her children, or her home. Suddenly they realized that they all shared the same problem, the problem that has no name. (p. 19)

For Friedan, the problem was a “sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning,” the asking Is this all? when the roles women were repeatedly told would bring them personal satisfaction did not (p. 15). Although their talk began cautiously and their middle-class problems were only part of a growing tide of women’s concerns, such discussions contributed to the political movement that historians have called the second wave of feminism in the United States.

I argue that the second wave set the agenda for much of the research on gender and political communication in the social sciences and the humanities. The results of that research, however, look very different because conceptualizations of gender vary as do implicit definitions of politics. These differences are telling and reveal the limits of each tradition. Just as Friedan foreshadowed the problems second-wave feminists would have in defining their concerns, so current differences between these types of research make it difficult for scholars of gender and political communication to share their findings.

The Second Wave of Feminism and Political Communication Research

I begin with an overview of second-wave feminism and offer three reasons it was situated to influence research on gender in the burgeoning area of political communication. I highlight some key moments in the development of social scientific and rhetorical lines of inquiry and show how political communication has one foot firmly planted on each side of the methodological divide. I then describe the lines of research that dominate scholarship in political communication in the United States roughly within the last decade. Within the social scientific tradition, two primary areas of gender-oriented scholarship are voter mobilization and mediated representation. The rhetorical tradition is dominated by “great woman” case studies and the gendering of issues. Of necessity, the references for each of these represent only a partial view into each line of inquiry, and these four categories do not include all current research on gender in political communication. Nevertheless, my review of recent scholarship suggests that they contain the major themes and central research questions guiding the field today.

The Trouble with Names: Some Operational Definitions

As terms, both second wave and political communication research are notoriously difficult to define. As Enke (2003) notes, “The second wave … may be understood not so much as a set of ideas that define a select group of women but rather as a bid for coherence around multiple challenges to the gendered, raced organization of social spaces” (p. 661). There is general consensus that the second wave began in the middle of the 20th century (Evans, 2003; Rosen, 2000). It is commonly differentiated from the first wave of women’s activism, dating back at least to the 1830s (Campbell, 1989; Ryan, 1992), which dissipated after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 (see Andersen, 1996; Buechler, 1990).

Just as the first wave is associated with the fight for women’s suffrage, the second wave is associated with the failed effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The second wave is characterized as “pursuit of multiple goals through very diverse organizational forums” (Buechler, 1990) and by a divisive lack of consensus about the inclusion of women and men of multiple classes, races, and sexual orientations. However intensely such debates played out among diverse activists (Flannery, 2001), they were often portrayed as occurring between two camps: liberal or “reform” feminists primarily interested in eliminating gender discrimination in education, employment, and other institutional settings and “radical” feminists engaged in the critique of patriarchy and traditional sex roles (Dow, 1996, p. 28; Ryan, 1992, p. 40). As symbolic distinctions between liberal and radical feminists gained traction with the general public during the second wave and its “backlash,” feminism became more difficult to define. Was its cause NOW-style “equal pay for equal work?” Or was it more subversive and antifamily, as opponents repeatedly charged?

“Political communication research” also can mean different things. Swanson and Nimmo (1990) define it as research that “makes claims about the relationships between communication processes and political processes” (p. 7), while Stuckey (1996) suggests that the “task of political communication scholars… is to analyze the creation, dissemination, and absorption of the symbolic messages that comprise our political life” (p. viii). Given these definitions, there is room for diverse methods, questions, and objects of study in this research; nevertheless, two characteristics define political communication research as a distinct field of study.

First, most political communication research either falls on the social scientific side, which is associated with quantitative methods that correspond with those used in cognate areas such as political science, psychology, and sociology, or the rhetorical side, with its more ancient roots in the Western philosophical tradition and its contemporary association with interpretive, critical, and historical methods. Whatever their differences, researchers agree that both have contributed to foundational lines of inquiry (Denton & Woodward, 1985; Swanson & Nimmo, 1990; Stuckey, 1996). Second, all political communication researchers tend to define “politics” in traditional ways. With some exceptions, these researchers study politics as practiced within statist, governmental, or other institutional contexts; thus, they study communicative practices and processes in social or electoral campaigns, debates, mediated representations of political issues, and so on. These researchers seem to agree with Jacoby (1996) that “when everything is political, nothing is” (p. B2) and tend not to include the more ambiguous realm of “cultural politics.”

As portrayed here, second-wave feminism and political communication research seem riddled with binary tensions between liberal versus radical activism, social scientific and rhetorical methods, and even statist politics and cultural politics. There are three reasons to pay close attention to these tensions. Because political communication research was in its infancy during feminism’s second wave, so it was influenced by how and why political communication scholars initially became interested in gender.

Shared Institutional, Intellectual, and Ideological Histories

The rise and fall of the second wave roughly coincided with the adolescence of broadcast media when their impact on U.S. politics was becoming increasingly obvious. Like other social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the second wave was covered by mainstream print and broadcast media, with the “first sustained attempts by the national media to treat the themes and interpret the implications of the women’s movement” being made in 1970 (Dow, 1996, p. 27). At roughly the same time, scholars in the social sciences were increasingly concerned with political coverage in the news, especially following the influential work of Edelman (1964) and Lasswell (Lasswell & Leites, 1949).

Edelman was one of the first theorists to write about the ways in which symbolic constructions of mediated politics affected material outcomes, while Lasswell offered social scientists a critical argument that such language was important and a method— content analysis—through which they could gauge its significance. Finding a scientific way to measure political language was not a concern for rhetorical scholars, however. A foundational premise of this tradition is the Aristotelian notion that the end of persuasion is decision making, which, when accompanied by Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric as “all of the available means of persuasion,” emboldened rhetorical critics to explore specific case studies situated within communicative, cultural, and other types of constraints. Although Edelman was influential for rhetoricians, Burke’s (1962, 1968, 1969) emphasis on the role of drama in social relations equipped scholars with new ways of understanding symbolic representations of social conflict and hierarchy. Generally, then, the simultaneous development of these three components throughout the 1970s—a movement, mass media, and the beginnings of an area of scholarship—gave rise to mediated contexts, methods, and critical vocabularies through which communication scholars could begin to study gender and politics.

Many of the central concerns motivating second-wave feminists were shared by political scientists and communication scholars. Although the goals of the movement were self-consciously “multiple,” gender roles were a key concern (Nicholson, 1997). This focus suited communication scholars interested in political science, with its traditional emphasis on institutions, public policies, and voting patterns typically associated with sex role differentiation. Indeed, some of the first articles on gender and political communication in the social scientific literature explored the impact of sex roles on political beliefs and preferences, especially in response to specific campaign messages (Flora & Lynn, 1974; Hedlund, Freeman, Hamm, & Stein, 1979; Krauss, 1974; Shabad & Andersen, 1979).

Meanwhile, scholars from multiple fields were researching the civil rights and student rights movements. Because many second-wave leaders drew upon their personal experiences with these movements, the women’s movement was ripe for study about the ways it paralleled and differed from them. As rhetorical scholars responded to this need, articles on the so-called women’s liberation movement were among the first to address gender issues within politics in communication journals (Campbell, 1973; Hancock, 1972; McPherson, 1973; Rosenwasser, 1972).

Before the second wave confronted the socioeconomic differences among women, Friedan’s (1963) emphasis on the problems of middle-class “housewives and mothers— previously nonpolitical and largely white” (Tobias, 1997, p. 72) was an important stimulus for the movement and the middle-class scholars who were among the first to study it. In a sense, Friedan’s (1963) discussion of the “problem” invited a communicative analysis. Although the core, salient political issue for middle-class suburban white women in the 1950s and 1960s may have been as yet unspeakable even by the women themselves, it is perhaps no surprise that in the 1980s and 1990s scholars from multiple disciplines were repeatedly asking definitional questions about feminism and its impact on their intellectual and other professional habits (see Blair & Brown, 1994; Campbell, 1988; Tompkins, 1987). What exactly were “women’s problems,” and what did it mean to be a feminist?

Social scientists typically turned to overtly political texts—political advertising, campaign events, media coverage of campaigns—to ask such questions, which included framing and priming research by asking which, when, how, and why specific policy dilemmas have been defined as women’s issues. Rhetorical scholars also asked how women’s problems and gender have been defined. Often they both used case studies and historical research to investigate the strategies women have used in public discourse to advance political causes. Campbell’s Man Cannot Speak for Her (1989) offers a paradigmatic rationale and a model for the recovery of women’s voices in public address in the United States, paying specific attention to messages and campaigns designed to affect public policy. Other rhetorical scholars examine contemporary discourses that fall outside the campaign-driven model—movies and television shows, for example—to show how cultural messages can reinforce particular gender roles and/or disarm their would-be challengers (see Dow, 1996).

In other words, the second wave occurred at the right time and asked the right questions in the right places from the 1970s to 1990s to prompt interest in research on gender and political communication. In the next two sections I review recent research from each tradition and discuss two main research areas representing contemporary lines of inquiry. Read in light of the intellectual and institutional history above, my review suggests that the traditions have methodological and topical differences and employ different notions of politics and gender.

Many social scientists conceptualize politics in terms of what Swanson and Nimmo (1990) have called the “voter persuasion paradigm,” which views “communication in election campaigns… [as] the field’s paradigm case” (p. 8). The campaign model defines the political in terms of the types of messages worthy of study and their assumed outcomes, which are limited to specific electoral changes, policy changes, or both. Likewise, this model typically views gender as a biological category or variable through which to identify the possible impact of sex differences on political preferences and/or behaviors. In general, when these researchers invoke the term gender, they are usually referring to women only (or at least situations in which women are salient), a tendency that positions maleness as the political norm.

The rhetorical tradition, which includes research informed by the voter persuasion paradigm, is likely to use a broader definition of “the political,” one that more obviously embraces the second-wave mantra that “the personal is political” and ranges from ongoing social movements (which may or may not have a clear agenda) to everyday social relations. Likewise, the rhetorical tradition tends to conceptualize gender as more than biological sex differences and to incorporate social constructions, cultural practices, and feminist ideology.

Gender in Social Scientific Research: Female Voters and Mediated Representations

Social scientific research on political communication follows the “voter persuasion model” in which communicative phenomena are assumed to be part of a campaign for policy or electoral change. Change cannot come about without a perceived reason for it, however. For second-wave feminists like Friedan, identifying the problem was part of the struggle. After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, it became more difficult for feminists to mobilize male and female voters, leading to the suggestion, lamented by Friedan (1963) herself, that “the ‘woman problem’ in America no longer existed” (p. 19).

In political science this difficulty can be explained by the theory of the mobilization of bias, which holds that political systems are maintained by a fundamental set of beliefs, values, and procedures that promote certain groups while constraining others. According to the classic theory of E. E. Schattschneider (1956), such systems inherently favor the status quo, and systemic constraints become especially obvious when subgroups try to increase their participation in order to change public policy (p. 71). For the politically disadvantaged, the primary communicative challenges are identifying and mobilizing potentially supportive voters and then making issues salient for them in order to win elections. Much recent social scientific research in political communication continues to discuss how gender might be salient and/or instrumental in relation to these challenges, viewing it primarily as one variable that can influence the course and outcome of political campaigns.

Female Voter Mobilization

One common method of identifying potential voters involves public opinion research, which is linked through its institutional and intellectual history to research in mass communication and political science. Two central premises of public opinion research—the desirability of measuring attitudes and the potential of attitudes to change—are closely related to studies on attitude formation and attitude change that have been part of communication research since the mid-20th century.

A major use of public opinion research concerns the gender gap, a term used by scholars and journalists to explain “differences between men and women in their party identification and voting choice” (Norris, 2003, p. 147). In this usage, gender refers to a biological category similar to sex. The gender gap has been a topic in public opinion research on presidential elections since 1980 (see Chaney, Alvarez, & Nagler, 1998), although Norris (2003) argues that it was influential long before that (pp. 149-154; see also Mansbridge, 1985). Recent research supports a continued belief in such a gap through longitudinal studies that often focus on the role of communication (Atkeson & Rapoport, 2003; Carlson, 2001; Norrander, 1997; Trevor, 1999). Other social scientists interested in the gender gap have used public opinion data to ascertain voters’ attitudes toward specific political figures (see Burden, 1999), while still others discuss gender as a variable influencing voters’ exposure to talk radio and other genres of mass communication as sources of political information (Bennett, 2002; Kaid & Holtz-Bacha, 2000; Kern & Just, 1997; Kohut & Parker, 1997; Pfau, Cho, & Chong, 2001).

A second type of voter mobilization research concentrates on voters’ reactions to messages and presentational strategies used by female candidates during campaigns. I distinguish this line of research from studies that primarily concern media coverage of a female candidate. The former is consistent with voter mobilization research because they are geared toward understanding communicative strategies purposefully employed by campaigns to appeal to voters. The latter contributes to a body of work referred to below as “issue representation” because it typically concerns choices made by third parties (i.e., editors and reporters).

Much research on message-oriented voter mobilization concerns political advertisements (see Kern & Edley, 1994). Scholars have asked, for example, if negative advertising is effective in mobilizing support for female candidates (Gordon, Shafie, & Crigler, 2003; Robertson & Froemling, 1999). Robertson and Froemling found that education and family were more likely to be themes in advertisements for female than for male candidates, while Hitchon, Chang, and Harris (1997) measured subjects’ reactions to perceptions of emotion in advertisements by female and male candidates. Other research asks questions about perceptions of gendered style in candidates’ presentational strategies (Bystrom & Miller, 1999; Dolon & Kropf, 2004), campaign literature (Larson, 2001), and overall campaign strategies (Berstein, 2000; Black & Erickson, 2000; Plutzer & Zipp, 1996).

Mediated Representations

Two influential concepts in social scientific political communication research are priming and framing. Priming “focuses on the standards or criteria that people use to make political evaluations” (Kenski, 1996, p. 72); framing refers to ways in which issues and “choice problems” are selectively presented, emphasizing some aspects while drawing attention from others (Iyengar, 1991, p. 11). These concepts can be especially salient for researchers interested in political issues related to gender. Indeed, one of the challenges during the second wave was to persuade men and women to view topics such as pay equity, gender discrimination, and reproductive rights not as women’s issues but as public policy issues with implications for all citizens. Rhetorical scholars also study issue representation, as I discuss below. Yet my review of recent social scientific literature suggests that although some scholars are interested in the framing of feminism as a social movement with implications for public policy, others pay considerable attention to how media frame specific female candidates.

Recent studies concerned with how feminism has been portrayed in the U.S. media include Ashley and Olson (1998); Costain, Braunstein, and Bergren (1997); Dow (1999); Huddy (1997); and Lind and Salo(2002). Likewise, Barker-Plummer (2002) has investigated how feminist activists themselves used the media to further their cause. Social scientific researchers increasingly have also asked framing and priming questions about media portrayals of female candidates (see Chang & Hitchon, 1997). Such analyses include virtually all levels of electoral contests in which women are candidates (see Aday & Devitt, 2001; Banwart, Bystrom, & Robertson, 2003; Bystrom, Robertson, & Banwart, 2001; Splichal & Garrison, 2000). The guiding assumption in virtually all of this research is that male and female candidates are treated unequally in U.S. media coverage (see Smith, 1997).

Scholars interested in how individual women are framed in media coverage do not always focus only on the candidates but have also taken an interest in coverage of candidates’ spouses. For example, Bystrom, McKinnon, and Chaney (1999) compared media coverage of Elizabeth Dole, then a would-be first lady, and counterpart Hillary Clinton in the 1996 presidential race, when both were running as presidential spouses. Winfield and Friedman (2003) conducted a similar analysis in 2000. For her part, Hillary Rodham Clinton has repeatedly been the subject of content analysis (see Corrigan, 2000; Nichols & Wolf, 2000; Gardetto, 1997). Finally, a related if smaller body of research asked whether the presence of female journalists has affected how media frame politics (Mills, 1997; Richardson & Moss, 1995; Weaver, 1997).

Gender in Rhetorical Research: Great Women and Gendered Issues

As I have noted, one difference between social scientific and rhetorical research is method. Some rhetorical scholars have adapted the spirit of the voter persuasion or campaign model in order to develop historical case studies of women’s rhetoric as U.S. political activism. Many studies concern the fight for suffrage and other political crusades in which women participated during the 19th century, most notably those on abolition and temperance. Choosing these examples of women’s public discourse as a point of origin for rhetorical research on gender in political communication is fitting because, as Campbell (1989) reminds us, “a central element in women’s oppression was the denial of her right to speak” (p. 9).

The model of politics in this rhetorical research seems conventional in the sense that it involves more-or-less organized campaigns for public policy reforms, yet it relies on a slightly different model of gender than that usually applied in social scientific research. To be sure, women in the 19th century were women because of biology, but they also were above and outside politics because of their culture. They were above politics because of the traditional split between the public and private spheres, with women inhabiting the latter so as not to be sullied by the former. At the same time, they were outside politics because they were disenfranchised. Such mixed cultural messages about womanhood were strong then as now (see Beasley, 2002), and in the scholarly tradition of researching great women in politics, authors continue to note the ways in which contemporary women still face a “double bind” (Jamieson, 1995) that is especially evident in political contexts. In this section on the rhetorical tradition, I begin with the “great women” studies, followed by a related theme in recent rhetorical research: studies of the gendering of political issues and images.

Great Women Orators

Research published over the last 10 years indicates continued interest in the great women orators of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Scholars have asked new questions about the rhetoric of Angelina and Sarah Grimké (Browne, 1996, 1999; Carlacio, 2002; Daughton, 1995; Huxman, 1996; Vonnegut, 1995); Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Hogan & Hogan, 2003; Huxman, 2000; Miller, 1999; Strange, 2002); and other leading suffragists (see Hayden, 1999; Slagell, 2001). In addition, rhetorical scholars shed new light on the rhetorical constraints and opportunities these women faced (Borda, 2002; Campbell, 1995; Ramsey, 2000; Ray, 2003; Zaeske, 1995, 2003).

In some studies, the reader gains a sense that the political is used by rhetorical scholars to refer to the cultural barriers these women were trying to challenge as well as to campaigns for specific causes. Ray (2003), for example, discusses how the choices made by woman’s rights activists left them in a precarious rhetorical and ideological position in 1868, particularly with regard to their inability to speak compellingly to working-class audiences. Strange (2002) analyzed a lecture that Elizabeth Cady Stanton repeatedly delivered to lyceum audiences on traditional gender roles in the family. Hogan and Hogan (2003) examined another of Stanton’s lyceum speeches in which she criticized organized religion and the education system. There is evidence then that even during the first wave of feminism, the personal could be political.

These and other “great women” paved the way for future women to have political influence in the United States. Indeed, when Lucas and Medhurst (1999) issued their compilation of the top 100 speeches of the 20th century, they noted that 23 were delivered by women. Of these 23, however, only four were by women who had been elected to public office, which suggests that women have had more political influence outside than inside government offices. Nevertheless, rhetorical scholars continue to study the relationship between gender and the rhetoric of elected officials; in fact, there has been continued debate about male and female rhetors’ use of “feminine style” in contemporary U.S. politics (Blankenship & Robson, 1995; Dow & Tonn, 1993; Parry-Giles & Parry-Giles, 1996; Robson, 2000; Scheckels, 1997). Campbell (1989) describes this style as being characterized by personal tone, inductive structure, recognition of the audience as peers, and efforts at identification with the audience—qualities that she notes historically have been associated with women’s “passivity, submissiveness, and patience” (p. 13). To speak of the role of gender in political communication, then, is not always to ask how women learn to speak more like men but whether the opposite also has been true, particularly in a mediated age.

Finally, one additional category of great women is U.S. first ladies. Although some have investigated other presidential spouses (see Blair, 2001; Edwards & Huey, 2001; Parry-Giles & Blair, 2002; Wertheimer, 2003), rhetorical studies during the past decade of first ladies most frequently concern Hillary Rodham Clinton (Anderson, 2002; Campbell, 1998; Parry-Giles, 2000, 2001; Templin, 1999; Winfield, 1997). Clinton’s eight years in that role provoked mercurial reactions from Americans; accordingly, she reinvigorated the study of this unelected political position, especially with regard to how its rhetorical demands and constraints compare to those of other political offices (see Bostdorff, 1998).

Gendered Issues

In the 1970s and 1980s, rhetorical scholars studied gender in the context of women’s liberation as a social movement. In the past decade, no similar level of scholarship on social movements has appeared; instead, scholars have asked how particular issues have been discussed, either by media commentators or by the candidates. Some of these studies have addressed overtly political issues. Beasley (2002) asked how suffrage was explained to public audiences by presidents, while Triece (2000) shows the ways that women’s political and economic gains have been constrained by public discourse. Daughton (1994) investigates instances in which “gender-related problems” posed challenges in modern presidential campaigns. These authors note the inherently conservative nature of U.S. politicians’ discussions of women’s problems. Indeed, as Dow (2004) recently commented, even as the second wave of feminism was unfolding, mass media were framing the women’s liberation movement in ways likely to inhibit the capacity for social change.

Other rhetorical scholars have examined specific public events and controversies to see how traditionally gendered issues are portrayed. Hayden’s (2003) discussion of the Million Mom March comes closest to being political in the traditional sense, yet the case of the march involves an organized effort to impact public sentiment rather than a specific vote. Hayden argues that the “nation-as-family” metaphor implicitly used by activists may have some political efficacy in promoting “motherist politics” (p. 197). Lay’s research (2003; Lay & Wahlstrom, 1996) on the rhetoric of midwifery has revealed the state’s interest in controlling women’s experiences in childbirth (see also Miller, 1999). As these studies indicate, the rhetorical tradition’s notion of the political is broad enough to incorporate social issues, with Hayden’s work (2003) showing that rhetorical constructions of the feminine as maternal can potentially alter the political paradigm itself.


Rhetoricians and social scientists interested in political communication continue to identify aspects of the problem that has no name but in different ways. Social scientific research on political communication remains rooted in the campaign model of political discourse; for these researchers, politics means elections and gender means women. Gender research in this tradition often explores differences in perception, judgment, and interpretation that presumably are based in sex differences, with men as the presumed normative standard. These studies also include numerous content analyses of media representations of feminism as well as specific female political agents. Rhetorical research also focuses on campaigns, yet it has tended to generate more historical case studies of first-wave feminists and their public activism. Rhetorical studies of historical and contemporary political campaigns and female political leaders have interpreted politics to include traditional electoral concerns as well as more ephemeral yet consequential cultural practices. For rhetoricians, gender can refer to the biological indicators of sex and/or the social and rhetorical construction of issues, practices, and speaking styles as feminine and/or masculine.

In a sense, then, social scientific research has come closer to adopting the institutionally oriented worldviews of Friedan and the reformist liberal feminists of the second wave. By focusing on how and why women vote as well as on how women and women’s issues are portrayed in media, these researchers implicitly ask if and how institutional practices of gender-based discrimination are sustained and/or mitigated via the democratic process. Rhetorical scholars also have studied institutional practices and their constraints on women’s political activism, yet they seem to have adopted some of the assumptions of the radical feminists; namely, that sexism is perpetuated by cultural meanings that exist within institutions and individuals. Rhetoricians also seem more likely to accept the notion that gender has performative aspects and is not solely determined by sex chromosomes.

Clearly, both traditions of this research are vital. We need to know more about electoral processes and cultural practices, and we need research that combines the best of both traditions. To produce such work, however, we shall have to transcend our distinctive vocabularies and assumptions in order to speak to each other across methodological and epistemological divides. In the process, we also need to pay attention to what these two traditions share— namely, the tendency to view gender and politics primarily as Friedan herself did: as the province of middle-class white heterosexual U.S. women. The next wave of political communication researchers interested in gender will surely have to be more inclusive and imaginative.