Rebel Girls: The 5 Kinds of Women (and Girls) in Presidential Campaign Ads

Header by Rory Midhani

Header by Rory Midhani

In our last lesson, we talked about the power women have to sway presidential elections — and the times they have. But the honest truth is that politicians have been courting women’s votes since the dawn of the presidential campaign, and they’ve been doing so on television since televisions became commonplace in American homes.

The role television has played in shaping the presidency is immeasurable. Many say that JFK won the presidential election in 1960 at least in part because he looked way better in the first-ever televised presidential debate than his sparring partner, Republican candidate Richard Nixon, who was sweating profusely and didn’t have the media training under his belt to urge him to look the camera deep in the eyes and make sweet love to it. (The televised debate has now become the bread-and-butter of elections.) And although AM and FM stations certainly captivated us all before video killed the radio star, presidential campaigns embraced television in 1952 and never looked back.

And thus, the “living room candidate” was born.

Being able to communicate with voters in the comfort of their own homes was invaluable in elections moving forward, especially as television became even more central to the daily lives of people across the country. And although campaign ads have evolved — from lengthy, black-and-white monologues to quick, dynamic spots in full color; from endorsements to attack ads; from common sense to fearmongering — there’s been a consistent flow of ads centered around or openly targeting women voters ever since.

Those ads utilize women as judges of character, symbols of peace and innocence, advocates for men, and the voices of families and authorities on the home. But only rarely do the ads featuring women’s voices and faces since the dawn of the televised presidential campaign actually address what we’d flat-out call “women’s issues” — things like reproductive rights, an end to sex discrimination and violence against women, closing the pay gap and more. Instead, ads featuring women have often served the opposite purpose: reinforcing gender roles and showcasing the sexism of the day.

These are five roles women play in campaign ads, and always have.

1. Masters of the Domestic Realm

Early conversations about sexism centered around the “domestic sphere” — the tiny world women occupied and ran in homes across the country, and the world. (Men were — and, by and large, are still the dominant — citizens of the “public sphere.”) Although women did and still do revel in domestic tasks, they also didn’t have the option, for a very long time in this country, to do anything else. Women didn’t have many legal rights. Women couldn’t vote; for a long time, the only political power they could wield was the potential to influence their husband’s vote.

This is a concept most efficiently epitomized by the constructed image of “the housewife.” She who impeccably manages her home: A supportive and nurturing mother, a loving and doting wife, an amazing chef, a lean mean cleaning machine — and someone who has no interests or passions outside of those things. When we talk about “the housewife” here, we’re not talking about actual housewives. We’re talking about the gendered trope of the housewife.

This trope permeates politics as well as the way we all interpret gender locally. If a woman is master of the domestic realm, that means her focus is family values and any ability to understand politics at a global scale must involve thinking about it on a tiny, simple scale. The notion of the woman as a housewife is the reason most of the ads featuring women in campaigns for the last 60+ years are centered on household expenses and cost of living, childcare, and family values. A housewife is the kind of woman who thinks about war because her son was drafted, not because she has a complex understanding of or investment in global politics. A housewife is the kind of woman who worries about taxes because her husband tells her money is tight, not because she’s invested in smart investments into our infrastructure.

This is the woman most visible in campaign ads through American history, and she’s the woman some of the other women we’ll discuss here are derived from. And this is the woman that appeared before voters in 1956, when Dwight D. Eisenhower made history as the first candidate to purposely pursue women voters. The result? A series of ads featuring women encouraging women to like Ike — with a heavy focus on how his presidency would impact their roles as masters of that domestic realm. Perhaps the peak spot was called “Women Voters,” an over two-minute long piece in which multiple women speak as housewives about the ways an Eisenhower presidency would make it easier for them to manage their homes and care for their families.

The housewives just kept coming as the years went on, across the aisle. JFK sat down with the Sills Family for one commercial in 1960, where a wife spoke about making ends meet but her husband answered substantiative questions about his economic standing and their cash flow. A 1984 ad featuring Geraldine Ferraro, the first female candidate for Vice President on a major party ticket, showed her speaking about issues of family and home. A 1996 ad for Clinton/Gore called “Accomplishment” used images of mothers in a montage about improving the lives of families and the safety of children. The 2000 election cycle ad “Ian” featured a mother talking about healthcare via an emotional story about her son. And even in the 2008 cycle, Barack Obama mentioned women explicitly in his ads mostly to talk about his single mother — and to affirm that she instilled in him the values he would use to lead.

2. The Face of Social Support Programs, Healthcare, and Other Girl Stuff

The idealized image of “the housewife” in American politics has also indelibly influenced which issues women are seen as symbols of, or authorities on. Hillary Clinton appears to have been right with the title of her book about the idea that “it takes a village” to raise a child, because campaign ads throughout history have collectively expressed that it takes a whole lot of women to take care of a country on an interpersonal level.

Women as political players — whether they’re voters or candidates — struggle to be seen as capable and/or leaders, because capability and leadership are “masculine” traits. But women are often seen instead as compassionate (and emotional, and soft, and naive, which we’ll discuss later), and thus the issues relegated to them include issues of community care and caring labor or careers. Women in campaign ads were more likely to talk about or be used to symbolize issues of public health and healthcare, the elderly, childcare and child protection, education, and food than they were to talk about global conflict, fixing the economy, or fueling innovation.

This has been the precarious position of women throughout this country’s history, and for most of global history. Women are seen as spokespeople for every family, and as the folks best suited to take care of everyone else’s ailments, yet are afforded no power or authority for doing so.

In this very particular way, women are depicted as representatives of the whole of the country, and yet not necessarily taken into consideration in terms of how these issues get addressed in policy or legislative terms.

This trend goes way back to the very first general election to use television ads, in 1952. Adlai Stevenson’s “Endorsement: Woman” spot featured, well, a woman, talking about how he would be a “president for all.” Weirdly enough, though, she listed only men when she talked about who that “all” encompassed.

She was echoed in 1972 by the McGovern campaign, which aired a commercial where various women from the nominating convention explained why they support him — and one stated he was the president of “the common people.” She was revisited in a 1992 ad called “Milwaukee” that featured women explaining that the Clinton / Gore campaign — which utilized the slogan “for the people” — was the ticket for “all of us.” And she was perfected by Rhonda Nix, who told voters in a 2004 ad that she was voting for John Kerry because, essentially, the government needed to take care of its own hungry, poor, uneducated masses instead of scaling up global conflicts in the Middle East.

When women get airtime in presidential campaign ads, they aren’t given the soapbox to speak for themselves. They don’t talk about advocating for themselves. They don’t discuss what’s in their best interests, nor are they encouraging other women to do so. Instead, they are speaking about what is best for everyone — because their role of caretaker extends into public life.

3. Peaceniks Who Need Protection

The notion of the compassionate women, however, also gives women a whole hell of a lot of influence when it comes to peddling peace.

The equation of women and girls with peace was strongest in 1964, when the “Daisy” ad that shook the world utilized video footage of a girl picking petal off of a daisy to contrast with the countdown to an atomic bomb’s detonation. In that ad, which aired only once, a little girl is a clear symbol of innocence and peace; her imminent destruction is supposed to terrify all of us at a core emotional level for that reason. She went on to cameo in another ad that cycle centered around The Bomb, in which she licked an ice cream cone while a female narrator talked about the dangerous chemicals that children will be exposed to if a bomb were to detonate on US soil. (Double whammy!)

She, like so many of the tropes we’ve already talked about, also lived on in campaign ads for years to come — most notably, in a 1984 ad for Walter Mondale that contrasted images of kids with images of large-scale weapons being detonated; a 1996 ad by Bob Dole that re-used the “Daisy” footage to perpetuate the cultural war on drugs; a 2000 ad for George W. Bush called “Dangerous World” that was centered around a young girl walking alone looking for help; and a 2004 ad for Bush called “Ashley’s Story” about a girl wounded by her mother’s death on 9/11. In a 2012 ad for Barack Obama, a woman’s death from cancer is used to exemplify the dramatic consequences of rolling back healthcare reform. In each case, a female figure we’re meant to perceive as fragile and innocent needs to be protected from harm, whether that’s nuclear war, street crime or grief and loss; the girl’s innocence makes the threat of danger all the more urgent in contrast.

At the same time, the association between women and peace grew, often based in ads about a maternal instinct or a selfish sense of compassion. A “College Girl” in 1956 said peace was the leading reason she supported Eisenhower. Women were seen but not heard in a 1972 ad for Nixon called “Youth,” where they served to represent the burgeoning peace movement. A woman named Lorraine, in a 1980 ad for Jimmy Carter, thanked the candidate for his commitment to peace; another, one of only two women in a person-on-the-street style spot asked about the election, said she worried Reagan would hastily enter into war.

Women and girls are useful in conversations about peace because they are seen as innocent, vulnerable, and kind. This makes the flip side of the trope, fearmongering, that much more effective. The evolution of women’s role in campaign ads as peaceniks has also morphed over time into the utilization of women as props for fear-based manipulation, as well as the targets of ads that relied on it.

As campaign ads evolved, they shifted in style. Attack ads weren’t as common in the elections of yesteryear, although there have been some very well-crafted attack ads throughout political history. In ads like “What Am I Fighting For,” from 1992, “Wolves,” from 2004, “Dangerous,” from 2008, women’s voices stoke fear in voters about issues like national security and ineffective leadership. The notion of women as risk-averse seems pertinent and pervasive here, as often fear-based ads put a lot of weight on “what ifs.”

Women in these types of ads urge voters to elect someone who is ready for anything — often based in some of the exaggerated fears politicians create during elections related to terrorism and war. Perhaps because women are seen as needing protection and providing care, they’re the authorities in these circumstances — often only these circumstances.

4. Emotional, Soft, Naive Voters

The central reason women are regarded as compassionate advocates for their communities, as selfless peons in politics, is because of sexist gender roles that idealize women as nurturers, caregivers, and self-sacrificing servants. To be these things, though, you also are probably a little bit emotional, soft, and/or naive. (Women in campaign ads are often a healthy mix of all three.)

Four ads featuring women were released in 1952, and five in 1956 — the two earliest elections to use television advertisements. Both of these elections featured Eisenhower squaring off against Democrats at a time when women were catered to, in different ways, by both parties.

One 1952 ad, “I Love the Gov,” featured a woman singing about her adoration for Adlai Stevenson — an adoration that was depicted as almost a romantic love. That woman was “voting with her heart” — embodying the trope that women aren’t political masterminds, but political pushovers. The notion that women don’t vote with their brains, because they’re ruled by their emotions, is used frequently to discredit female politicians and the women who support candidates who represent their best interests. And yet, political ads also utilize the notion of the emotional woman to win votes. A very deliberate example is “A Mother’s Tears,” from 2004, in which a woman who lost her son in Iraq is seen sobbing into the camera about her decision to support John Kerry in the election. I’m not condemning here the idea of women being moved by the consequences of war or loss of a family member. But it’s hard to imagine political ads so freely featuring images of men this emotional, or relying on the central idea of men’s family bonds to stage an entire spot.

Being emotional, though, is only one part of the reason women are still seen as politically naive. Yes, they’re seen as naive because they’re emotional — and thus, softies. But they’re also patronizingly depicted as kind of clueless about politics on a global scale, harkening back to the simplicity of “the housewife,” and the tiny domestic lens through which she attempted to conceptualize massive concepts.

One Eisenhower ad featuring a woman from the ’52 cycle was part of a series in which the candidate answered questions from actual citizens: “Bus Driver.” In it, a woman asks Eisenhower a simple, almost childish question: “The Democrats have made mistakes, but aren’t their intentions good?” Her characterization as politically naive is apparent; men in other Eisenhower Answers America spots spoke about concrete policy topics like tax rates, not the inner emotional landscapes of other politicians or implying that forgiving the Democratic party for their misgivings was correct.

To help these women along, there will of course always be men who want to make up their minds for them. We’ve already discussed a few commercials that depict women’s votes as being selflessly cast in an attempt to improve men’s lives: They vote against war so their sons won’t be drafted; they worry about work/life balance for their husbands. A spot from McGovern’s nominating convention in 1972 also featured a woman who was voting for him because if she didn’t, her son wouldn’t drive her home.

5. Arbiters of Values, Judges of Character, and Truth-Tellers (for the Men They Like)

All of these stereotypes and caricatures of women tell us a few things. All of these commercials put together present us with a mostly tiny and repetitive narrative about women’s lives. Women are, overwhelmingly, caretakers and homemakers in the political sphere, and they’re depicted as emotional and short-sighted folks who shouldn’t be trusted with “the big stuff.”

But when these women are also painted as intuitive, honest, and formative parts of our character development — think of Obama’s mother instilling him with values. Because of that, women are given the leverage, in political ads spanning the past half-century, to make evaluations of men’s moral fiber, to confirm the truth about men’s lives, and to speak with authority about the values male candidates possess.

There was “Mrs. JFK,” a 1960 ad in which Jackie Kennedy assured Spanish-speaking voters that they shared her husband’s values. Senator Chase confirmed Goldwater’s position on Social Security in the spot named after her in 1964. Mamie Eisenhower came out to spread her husband’s wisdom and encourage voters to support Nixon. Rose Carter talked about her husband’s character in an ad from 1976, and Pearl Bailey did the same for his opponent, Gerald Ford. Nancy Reagan dismissed criticism of her husband in a 1980 ad. George H.W. Bush’s daughter-in-law confirmed his allegiance to the Hispanic community in 1988.

Women as arbiters of value is quite possibly the least offensive box I’ve had to put women in throughout this piece — but the truth is that it still comes at a cost. Women are seen as good judges of character because they’re seen as emotionally intuitive people who vote with their heart, which saddles them with the weight of being perceived as politically naive — concerned with “good intentions” above all. They’re seen as the authority on values because we still implicitly expect them to take on all the work of instilling values in their children as homemakers and caretakers. And they’re utilized in campaigns to sell men to the country as leaders, but often doing so reinforces the idea that women can’t be those kinds of leaders themselves.


To watch a bunch of campaign ads and follow in my footsteps, go to livingroomcandidate.org.


Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor privately, email carmen at autostraddle dot com. Ask questions about the lesson in the comments!

Carmen is the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. , host of Bitch Media's POPAGANDA podcast and co-founder and Contributing Editor at Argot magazine. She previously served as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director at Autostraddle. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 926 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. This helped me realize that one of the things I’m enjoying about the dem presidential race is that Hillary is seen as the calculating, experienced candidate who’s willing and able to cut a deal to get the job done, and Bernie is the idealist, champion of principles. Nice reversal of typical gender roles.

    • an interesting fact: the ads that adamantly did not fit in these categories were all the mccain / palin ads that came out in 2008. they were trying so hard to capitalize on feminist disappointment about hillary’s loss that they positioned palin identically to their positioning of mccain – which is to say, she was presented as an actual political force and a political player versus a clueless housewife. (irony abounds here.) it’s true that hillary’s campaign breaks down these boundaries – but i also do feel obligated, as a support right now of her candidacy, to just put out the disclaimer that her candidacy is still constantly dealing with sexism, and is disadvantaged out of the gate by it. but yes! her ads showcase a strong, intelligent woman who can make decisions – in fact, her primary ad from ’08 about “the call in the middle of the night” punches a lot of these tropes in the face. (but also plays into some – namely, the female narrator as fear-mongerer. that being said, a woman is saving the day, so whatever, honestly, still badass.)

    • daisy caused so much controversy – it aired only once but literally made history. it was one of the ads i studied in a course i took on presidential elections from a communications and strategic perspective – and i definitely think it was one of the earliest fear-based ads i watched for this piece. it’s a lot! also, can you imagine if it had been made today with all the effects and editing technology we have? it’d be the scariest shit ever.

  2. Thank you for this! It’s a hobby of mine to criticize advertisement, especially ads which are targeted specifically towards women or men. So this really fascinates me. My state is pretty far back in the primary cycle so I haven’t seen much in the way of political ads yet, but now I know what to look out for when they start.

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