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Strong but 'feminine': how Nikki Haley navigates gender as only woman in the GOP race

Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley addresses a gathering during a campaign stop at a brewery, Nov. 29 in Meredith, N.H.
Charles Krupa
Republican presidential candidate former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley addresses a gathering during a campaign stop at a brewery, Nov. 29 in Meredith, N.H.

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."

"This is not about identity politics," Haley said during her campaign announcement in February. "I don't believe in that, And I don't believe in glass ceilings either. I believe in creating a country where anybody can do anything and create their own American dream."

The limits of identity

That framing is no accident, says Mona Charen, policy editor and podcast host at the conservative news site The Bulwark.

"The identity politics appeal has limits within the Republican primary," Charen explained. "Republicans are not as cordial to that kind of messaging as Democrats."

Charen says Haley seems well aware of the tension inherent in reminding Republicans that she brings something different to their primary — without leaning too hard on that messaging.

"She is doing a little bit of that — 'send a woman to the White House' — but she's also saying she wants to be judged on her qualifications and not as a female candidate," Charen said. "So she's trying to walk that tightrope."

A delicate balance

Haley walks that tightrope in part by stressing both her domestic and foreign policy credentials — an approach that appeals to voters like Mary Mayville, who attended a Haley campaign event last month in Londonderry, N.H.

"I don't really care [about her gender]," Mayville said. "I've been around a lot of leaders that are really good as women, and I've been around a lot of leaders that are really good that happen to be men."

Mayville, who's an Air Force veteran, says she cares much more about finding a nominee who can move the party beyond Trump, and appeal to swing voters, like a family member who usually votes for Democrats but likes Haley.

"I want that for my country," Mayville said, "I fought for my country; I served. I'm like, I want that for my country — I don't want this nonsense."

Haley recently got a major boost from the Koch network, an influential group of conservative donors who've called for an alternative to Trump. But with Haley still trailing far behind the frontrunner in Republican primary polls, she'd need to persuade many more voters in states like New Hampshire that she has the experience and the background needed to bring the party — and the country — together.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.