HomeLearning CenterStrong but ‘Feminine’: How Nikki Haley Navigates Gender as Only Woman in the GOP Race

Strong but ‘Feminine’: How Nikki Haley Navigates Gender as Only Woman in the GOP Race

Originally published by Sarah McCammon for NPR

In a primary that’s been dominated by former President Donald Trump, Nikki Haley and all of the other Republican hopefuls have worked hard to stand out.

For Haley, that’s often meant highlighting the traits that make her unique in the Republican field — including her gender and her family’s immigration story.

As she announced her entry into the Republican primary in February, Haley explicitly referenced her gender, expressing her hope that, “may the best woman win.” To resounding applause, Haley also said that moving the country forward will “require doing some things we’ve never done, like sending a tough-as-nails woman to the White House.”

Strong, but ‘feminine’

That applause from her supporters in Charleston notwithstanding, Haley has had to walk a careful line as a Republican campaigning on identity. On the campaign trail, she often speaks about being a wife and mother — while also touting her experience as a former United Nations ambassador and South Carolina governor.

Haley is unapologetic in invoking her gender in her run for president, as she demonstrated in the third primary debate, after rival Vivek Ramaswamy made a snarky reference, referring to her as a “Dick Cheney in three-inch heels.”

Haley shot back, doubling down on the feminine symbolism by announcing that they were “five-inch heels, and I don’t wear ’em unless you can run in ’em.”

That pairing — of a femininity that exhibits strength and a strength that is no threat to femininity — has been central to Haley’s story about herself.

During an event last year in California focused on her book profiling female leaders, including former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, known as the Iron Lady, Haley discussed the meaning of that moniker.

“There’s nothing wrong with Iron Ladies being feminine,” Haley said. “There’s nothing wrong with Iron Ladies being great wives, and great moms.”

American dreams

Haley talks about both her gender and her race in terms that align with traditional Republican ideas about America as a land of opportunity for everyone, regardless of those categories.

As she campaigns, Haley has spoken about growing up in the only brown family in a small South Carolina town — where everyone else was either Black or white. But she says her family believed in what she calls the “promise of America.”

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