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Male Democratic Candidates Will Have To Answer Gender Role Questions In 2020 Race


When a woman is running for office, it's a pretty safe bet that gender will be an issue. But as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports, gender has now become an issue for the Democratic men running for president.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Beto O'Rourke got lots of attention from his campaign kickoff in Keokuk, Iowa. And thanks to some of his comments, not all of that attention was good.


BETO O'ROURKE: I just got a call from my wife, Amy, who's back in El Paso, Texas, where she is raising, sometimes with my help, Ulysses, who's 12 years old.

KURTZLEBEN: That flip acknowledgement that his wife was doing most of the parenting while he pursued the presidency upset some Democratic voters. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper likewise drew criticism after he was asked at a CNN town hall whether he'd consider a woman running mate. He said yes and added this.


JOHN HICKENLOOPER: How come we're not asking - not asking more often the women, would you be willing to put a man on the ticket?

KURTZLEBEN: He later clarified that it was a joke. In the 2020 presidential race, the Democratic men are grappling with gender in a way they haven't before. Here's Kelly Dittmar, assistant research professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

KELLY DITTMAR: As we disrupt the masculine dominance in the presidency, it also means that those who are auditioning to hold the role have to think differently about how they present themselves in terms of gender.

KURTZLEBEN: And O'Rourke seems to be doing that. On the campaign trail, he has multiple times said his gender and race both privilege him.


O'ROURKE: As a white man in this country, there are a set of circumstances that are different than they are for women, than they are for people of color.

KURTZLEBEN: In other words, this year, voters are hearing something that is not often addressed in politics - that gender is a thing male candidates have, too. In addition, voters are seeing many types of men running. The current presidential field contains black, Latino and Asian men. There's also a gay candidate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who spoke of his husband in a recent CNN town hall.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: The most important thing in my life, my marriage to my husband, who's here. It - yeah, he deserves a round of applause.


KURTZLEBEN: Gender has always been a major factor in presidential campaigns even when women haven't been major party candidates, like when the men running try to out-tough-guy each other. Here's George H.W. Bush in 1988 poking fun at his opponent, Michael Dukakis.


GEORGE H W BUSH: I wouldn't be surprised if he thinks that a naval exercise is something you find in Jane Fonda's workout book.

KURTZLEBEN: Even in 2016, the first time a major party nominated a woman for president, Trump's gender was constantly at center stage as well, including in this Fox News debate.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And he referred to my hands - if they're small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there's no problem. I guarantee you.

KURTZLEBEN: That was central to Trump's identity according to Jackson Katz, author of "Man Enough?: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton And The Politics Of Presidential Masculinity."

JACKSON KATZ: Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in large part by attacking the masculinity of his fellow Republican candidates, by successfully feminizing and ridiculing his fellow Republican candidates.

KURTZLEBEN: Of course other identities complicate all this. As a black man, President Obama contended with gender in a different way from other presidents. Comedian Keegan-Michael Key has said he created the persona of Obama's anger translator to express the feelings Obama, as a black man, couldn't safely vent. He accompanied Obama at the 2015 White House Correspondents' Dinner.


BARACK OBAMA: We count on the press to shed light on the most important issues of the day.

KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY: And we can count on Fox News to terrify all white people with some nonsense.

KURTZLEBEN: Gender is inextricably tied to race in American politics, says Aimee Allison, founder of She The People, which promotes women of color in politics.

AIMEE ALLISON: There is a very active movement for gender equality that demands its leaders speak authentically and credibly to intersectional issues of gender, race, sexuality and others.

KURTZLEBEN: None of this is to say that in confronting gender, the men are at a disadvantage in this presidential race. Patti Rutka, who went to see O'Rourke speak at a New Hampshire brewery last week, believes that women still face the heavier political obstacles.

PATTI RUTKA: The fact that we have the person in the White House that we do is evidence that the country is not quite totally ready yet for a woman. I want the country to be ready for a (laughter) woman, but I'm not sure that it is.

KURTZLEBEN: And it's two white men, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who are the most well-known of the Democratic candidates and, at least for now, are leading in early polling. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAGINED HERBAL FLOWS' "BREEZE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.