Will Nikki Haley face the same historic gender bias in media coverage during her presidential run? Don Lemon proves she will.

Nikki Haley stands behind a podium, smiling. A crowd looks on from behind wither several people holding up signs that say 'Nikki Haley'
Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and United Nations ambassador for President Donald Trump, launched her 2024 presidential campaign on Feb. 15, 2023. How she grapples with her position in what is sure to be a crowded Republican field and a history of media bias against women candidates is yet to be seen, says Meg Heckman, assistant professor of journalism at Northeaster. AP Photo/Meg Kinnard

Nikki Haley, former United Nations ambassador under President Donald Trump and governor of South Carolina, recently announced she is running against President Donald Trump in 2024. She is the first, but certainly not the last, to challenge Trump for the Republican nomination.

When it comes to Haley, the first Indian American to serve in a presidential cabinet, “there is not much of a playbook” for her campaign, says Meg Heckman, assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. But there is a precedent for how women are treated by the public and media when they run for high office––and you don’t have to look hard to find it.

On Thursday, during “CNN This Morning,” Don Lemon said: “Nikki Haley isn’t in her prime” in reference to Haley’s comments about requiring mandatory mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years old. Lemon received immediate pushback from his female co-anchors, who pushed him to clarify his comments (Lemon just responded, “Don’t shoot the messenger”). He later apologized for his comments, but the tone and implications behind his words are not new when it comes to the media’s coverage of women candidates.

“That’s been true dating back to when Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president in the late 1800s,” Heckman says. “She was vilified, she was marginalized, she was condemned. There was the infamous Thomas Nast political cartoon that labeled her Mrs. Satan.”

Headshot of Meg Heckman
Meg Heckman, assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

According to research Heckman and her colleagues conducted on gendered news coverage of Vice President Kamala Harris, those biases haven’t disappeared. Despite the political and cultural changes in the U.S. since Woodhull’s campaign, women candidates are still covered less than their male counterparts. And when they do receive coverage, it has, historically, tended to “trivialize them, vilify them, focus more on their personal lives than their policy position,” Heckman says. It can impact women’s political ambitions and damage how voters generally perceive female politicians.

“The biggest [challenge] is this disconnect between how we’ve been socialized to think what a leader should look like and how women candidates present,” Heckman says. “In our society, we’ve been conditioned since childhood in a lot of different ways and a lot of different venues that leaders are strong white men.”

Politics is a game of optics. During a campaign, a candidate’s clothes, hair, vocal inflections and body all become fair game for political journalists to analyze. But Heckman says you don’t have to look far back in history to see how different that journalistic lens looks when it comes to female candidates. 

“In many cases it’s a lose-lose situation because if a woman comes off as too masculine, she gets critiqued in a way that Hillary Clinton was,” Heckman says. “She was mocked for her pants suits. She was mocked for her hair. She was mocked for her voice, her stature, her body type. On the flip side, if you present as more feminine, you’re treated the way Sarah Palin was in 2008. Gov. Palin was sexualized and objectified.”

Go back further and there is Elizabeth Dole’s 2000 bid for the Republican nomination. Or Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic nominee for vice president, whom Denver Post columnist Woodrow Paige wrote would be the first vice president who could enter a wet T-shirt contest. And women of color who run for office face additional challenges that can end up reinforcing harmful stereotypes.

It’s yet to be seen how this will impact Haley’s campaign, but Heckman notes there are differences in how female politicians across the political spectrum position themselves. Haley kicked off her campaign by saying, in a not so subtle reference to Trump, “You should know this about me, I don’t put up with bullies. And when you kick back, it hurts them more if you’re wearing heels.”

Heckman says candidates perform their womanhood differently depending on where they fall on the political spectrum, with an overwhelming focus on white womanhood. 

“You perform conservative womanhood as ‘I believe in traditional gender roles, and I am upholding the patriarchy in a lot of different ways and leveraging white womanhood to keep other marginalized groups in check,’” Heckman says. “Then more liberal womanhood plays out a little more explicitly feminist, perhaps talking a little more explicitly about issues around gender and privilege and power.”

As a woman of color in the Republican party who is the daughter of Indian immigrants, Haley also will likely face what Heckman says is a general sense of novelty in the media when it comes to women and women of color. Framing a candidate as “the first woman” or “the first woman of color” can seem like it’s acknowledging a milestone, but it often comes at the cost of focusing on a candidate’s policies, Heckman says. 

If, in 2024, Haley is alone on the debate stage surrounded by a crowd of Republican men, it’s likely very little will change. But as the number of women running for office and serving in government increases, Heckman hopes some of these narratives will fall to the wayside.

“The more women who run and the more women from different backgrounds who run, the weaker the novelty trope becomes,” Heckman says. “When I think about the moment we’re in in U.S. politics, that feels really pivotal. The question will be, will the women candidates running be open to embracing policies that embrace gender equity in society?”

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.mello-klein@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.