Author’s Blog: Gender, Political Rhetoric, and Moral Metaphors in State of the City Addresses

This is an author-produced blog post to introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles.  This article is now available in Online First.

Gender, Political Rhetoric, and Moral Metaphors in State of the City Addresses

Mirya R. Holman
Tulane University

Abstract: Politicians and leaders use metaphors and frames in political communication to provide citizens with meaning, persuade, and promote emotional reactions. At the same time, a large body of scholarship documents the propensity for female leaders to “speak in a different voice” when in political office. Research to date on policy metaphors, however, rarely compares male and female leaders’ use of metaphors or evaluates the use of these metaphors in local politics. Using State of the City addresses from sixteen cities to evaluate the connection between policy agendas, metaphors, and mayoral gender, I find that male and female leaders emphasize similar issues in their speeches, but use different frames to present these issues, with female leaders using more nurturing framing than do male leaders. In addition, while both male and female mayors emphasize economic development as the central issue in their speeches, female mayors use more inclusive framing in these discussions. 

What do mayors talk about in important speeches to citizens?

Using State of the City Speeches, or the annual address that mayors give to their cities (a State of the Union address for a city), I evaluate both the issue content of the speeches and the metaphors and frames used to discuss those issues. These speeches are a common way for mayors to convey their policy interests to the public. For example, Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, recently gave a speech discussing how the city had recovered from Katrina in the 10 years since the disaster, while Betsy Price, mayor of Fort Worth, TX, touted the city’s population growth and efforts to reform the budget process.

First, looking at the issues that mayors address: unsurprising to those who study urban politics, economic development make up nearly a quarter of the issue content of these speeches. Public safety and general government (including budgeting, public employees, etc.), education, and regimes (or public-private partnerships) are all also common issues discussed in addresses.

How do mayors frame important policy issues in these political speeches?

Political leaders don’t just talk about issues – they also use frames to connect to their audience. These policy frames and metaphors also influence how people think about politics, particularly in low-information environments. In the paper, I focus George Lakoff’s nation-as-family set of metaphors. From Lakoff’s perspective, conservatives view the government as a strict fatherand liberals viewing the government as a nurturant parent. These frames then influence how liberals and conservatives see policy, address problems, and understand the role of government in the lives of citizens. A single issue could be framed through either the strict father or nurturant parent view; for example, crime could be framed as a need to provide more care for the vulnerable in society:

It is a constant struggle… for our entire community as we come to get our kids, our family members, out of the gang lifestyle…and as we wrestle to keep them out in the first place (nurturant parent).

The same issue could also be framed as  enforcing the law and right and wrong: “we are sending a clear message to auto thieves: your crimes will not go undetected. You will be caught” (strict father).

Overall, I find that mayors use nurturant parent themes much more often than strict father themes in state of the city addresses. In particular, the most common frames are concern for others and morality as strength. Concern for othersemphasizes thinking of others and helping them, generosity, and respect: “It is up to each and every one of us to do our part to make our community and our neighborhoods places we are proud to call home.”

The frame of morality as strength focuses on working hard, an emphasis on self-discipline, and the rule of law. For example, a mayor might say:

All around me, inside City Hall and out, I see a community that is facing its challenges head-on with more force…more fight and determination…more transparency and humility and creativity than ever before. It blows me away when I think about it.

How might the gender of a mayor influence these frames?

Scholarship on gender and leadership often finds that women “speak in a different voice,” value cooperation and communication in their leadership style, approach policymaking in a different manner, and have closer relationships with constituents. Given the connection to nurturant parent frames, it is reasonable to expect that female leaders would use these frames more often than would male leaders. And I find evidence of this – Female mayors applied nurturant parent frames more frequently (an average of 61 frames per speech) than did male mayors (an average of 46 frame per speech). The reverse is also true: male mayors use strict father frames much more frequently (an average of 29 frames per speech) than do female mayors (who used an average of 14 frames per speech).

Looking at economic development, interesting patterns of framing emerge between female and male leaders. Female mayors frame economic development within multiple appeals in almost every circumstance. Thus, while a male mayor might frame job growth within the context of New Ideas: “Last month, we opened a new manufacturing facility being built by the German high-performance plastics company,” a female mayor frames a single economic development idea as New Ideas, Connectedness, and Concern for others:

These examples prove together we can be a birthing place for new ideas, new businesses, and new solutions. Don’t be surprised when [our] companies begin to be sought out for their ingenuity, their commonsense, and their solutions to ongoing problems.

These results speak to the body of scholarship about gender and political behavior that suggests that women in political office are more inclusive and work to include more voices in the policy process

What does this mean for urban politics?

The rhetoric and content of speeches is particularly important for local leaders, including mayors. Americans believe mayors are central political leaders and represent the “most accessible” of executives in the American system: urban voters want mayors to provide leadership and to give a voice to underrepresented interests in the city. Yet, urban residents pay very little attention to the actual policymaking by mayors. Instead, the public uses rhetoric by mayors to evaluate the leaders. My findings demonstrate these informal powers of mayors, and how these powers are constrained in some ways – looking at issue content, for example – by the cities they serve. Yet, mayors do exercise some choice over the issue foci of their speeches and the rhetoric used. As such, these speeches represent one of the tools available to mayors in a wide range of informal and formal policy options.

By bringing together previously divergent scholarship in these areas, I demonstrate the importance of gender in urban politics. My findings suggest that women in local office are constrained by the urban environment – the emphasis on economic development is evidence of this – but also behave in a different manner from male mayors. The research presented here provides a new look at how mayors are able to shape policy agendas and political rhetoric in their cities, even when constrained by pressing issues and a focus on economic development.

For more information about Dr. Holman, please see

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