Just last week, we surpassed the record number for women candidates filed to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. As of April 6, 309 (231D, 78R) women filed in the 29 states where filing deadlines have passed and candidacies have been certified. The previous high for women primary candidates for the U.S. House was 298, set in 2012. With 21 states left to file or certify candidacies, the number of women candidates across this year’s U.S. House primaries will most certainly confirm predictions of a surge in women running.
Amidst the narratives of women’s surge in candidacies and political engagement being floated by organizations and news media, it’s hard to see these particular data on women House candidates in the appropriate context. Within that context, you’ll find that women remain underrepresented among all House candidates, despite increasing in number and proportion of candidacies from 2016 to 2018.
As of April 6, women are just 21.9% of the major party candidates that have filed for the U.S. House. This is the other half of the story in election 2018: the number of men running is also up, and male candidates still far outnumber women running for the House.
In the 2016 U.S. House elections, 17.8% of all of the candidates on primary ballots or successful in party conventions were women.* While these data reflect candidacies across all states and account for any filed candidates who withdrew before ballots were printed, they indicate that the proportion of women candidates – not just the number of women running – is up this year from the previous election cycle.
Another way to compare the data is to look only at 2016 House candidates only in the same states that have already filed and certified candidates in 2018. Women were 15.9% of primary candidates and convention winners in these states in 2016.
The data in the table below show that the number of filed candidates in these 29 states is up by nearly 40% from the number of primary candidates on 2016 ballots or successful at party conventions. That number masks an enormous gender gap; while the number of male candidates is up by about 28% in these states overall, the number of female candidates is nearly double – 90% more – what it was in 2016.
NOTE: 2016 data reflects the number of men and women candidates on primary ballots or successful in nominating conventions (where the conventions were held in lieu of a primary election). 2018 data reflects the number of men and women candidates who filed and whose candidacies were certified according to state election officials in the 29 states that completed certification by April 6, 2018.
Short answer: no. To start, 75% of the major party women candidates who have already filed for the U.S. House are Democrats. And the underrepresentation of Republican women is particularly stark when reported as a proportion of all filed Republican House candidates. As of April 6, just 12% of all filed Republican House candidates are women, while women are 30.2% of all Democrats filed to run for the House.
In a previous analysis, I made the point that the “pink wave” in 2018 hues blue, demonstrating how much of the increase in women House candidates this year is concentrated among Democrats. When focusing specifically on the states where candidates have already filed this year, this story remains true. Compared to 2016 numbers of candidates on primary ballots or winning conventions in the same states, Democratic candidacies are up by about 68% overall, by 51% among Democratic men, and by 126.5% among Democratic women. The increase in Republican women candidates (28%) is larger than among Republican men (12%) from 2016 to 2018, but overall the rise in candidacies among Republicans is minimal (13.5%) and unequal to that among Democrats running for the House in 2018.
CAWP’s Election Watch provides updated numbers of women candidates in real time, including breakdowns by filing status, candidate type (open seat contender, challenger, incumbent), party, and level of office. These data help to provide additional context to understand gender differences among 2018 candidacies, as do analyses that have shown that challengers make up a high proportion of women House candidates and that many women candidates are running in districts where members of their party are unlikely to win.
These details matter, not only for understanding what is happening in electoral politics today, but also for predicting and contextualizing what happens in November. Thus far in 2018, the House data show that the progress for women candidates is real but not universal, and that the push to gender parity in congressional elections – at least vis-a-vis candidate numbers – is far from over.
* The proportion of filed candidates today may not reflect the total candidates on primary ballots (the measure used for 2016 data) if any candidates withdraw before ballots are printed.
News of the “Pink Wave” of women candidates was ubiquitous ahead of and after the first anniversary of the Women’s March. Cover stories and in-depth investigations into women running for office in 2018 rightfully celebrated the increase in the numbers of women running this year. At CAWP, we are the ones keeping those numbers, tracking potential candidates for Congress and statewide elected executive offices nationwide. We’re celebrating as well, thrilled to see women candidate numbers that are almost guaranteed to break records at every level. But we also know that there is more to this story, and ignoring important context in which to digest these candidate numbers risks inaccurate, and perhaps unfair, conclusions come Election Day.
So before we go surfing this wave, here are a few currents to consider.
1. The surge in potential candidacies is not contained to women; more men are running too. And, like among women, the numbers of Democratic men likely to run for Congress has more than doubled from election 2016. We compared our list of potential candidates for the U.S. House and Senate at the start of the new year in both the 2016 and 2018 cycles. The number of Democratic male House candidates went up by 126%, while the number of Democratic female House candidates went up by 146% between these dates. Among potential Republican House candidates, the numbers for men went up 25% and women’s numbers increased by 35% at this point between the 2016 and 2018 cycles.
These data reflect potential women candidates at the start of each election year, not the number of women candidates who ended up on the primary ballots (as filed candidates) in these cycles.
Among likely Senate candidates, the gains are larger for women - Democrats and Republicans – than men from the 2016 to 2018 cycles, but women are not alone in increasing their numbers this year.
2. More women are running in 2018, but they are still less than a quarter of likely congressional candidates. Based on CAWP’s database of potential congressional candidates, women are just 23% of all individuals that have indicated they may file to run in 2018. This is up from about 19% of all potential congressional candidates at this point in election 2016, but – needless to say – is far from representative of women’s share of the U.S. population (52%).
The gain in women’s presence among the pool of likely candidates is notable, but may also be surprisingly low to many reading about a new “year of the woman.” When the rise among male candidates discussed above is taken into account, however, this makes much more sense. It’s only when women’s rise in candidacies significantly outpaces men’s that women will move closer to gender parity among potential congressional contenders.
3. The “Pink Wave” hues blue. The increases in women’s – and men’s – potential U.S. House candidacies are greatest among Democrats. Moreover, the representation of women among potential Democratic candidates for both the U.S. House and Senate is significantly higher than among potential Republican candidates, consistent with the disparities in representation among Democratic and Republican women in Congress today.
As of January 1, 2018, women were just under 30% of potential Democratic candidates for the U.S. House and 35.4% of potential Democratic Senate contenders. In contrast, women were just 12.7% of potential Republican House candidates and 13.5% of potential Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate.
Is this disparity consistent with previous cycles? Yes. The dearth of Republican women candidates is not unique to 2018. In fact, looking at the change in Democratic and Republican women’s proportions of their parties potential candidates from 2016 to 2018 shows the partisan story hasn’t changed much, especially among House contenders. The proportion of women among potential House Democratic candidates increased by about 1.5 percentage points from 2016 to 2018, while the proportion of women among potential House Republicans rose by three-quarters of a point.
Among potential Senate candidates, the proportion of women among Democrats jumped by 6 points from 2016 to 2018, while the proportion of women among Republicans rose by just over 3 points.
4. Many women running are swimming against the tide. As of this week, 59% of all potential women candidates for the U.S. House and 61% of all potential women candidates for the U.S. Senate are seeking to unseat incumbents, whether in primaries or in the general election. At this point in the 2016 cycle, 41% of all potential women House candidates and 52% of potential women Senate contenders were running as challengers. By historical comparison, 51% of file women candidates for the U.S. House were challengers in 1992, the “year of the woman” when women nearly doubled their congressional representation.
Celebrating the rise in women’s candidacies in 2018 is more than merited, but recognizing these electoral dynamics is important for a few reasons. First, being clear about the challenges women candidates will face in 2018 ensures that expectations of a drastic rise in women’s representation after Election Day are tempered and a more modest gain in women’s officeholding is not misinterpreted as a failure. Second, including men in our analyses provides a stark reminder of women’s overall underrepresentation among candidates and officeholders and, thus, the progress still left to make for women to reach parity with men in political power. Finally, these data should serve as motivation to push for greater women’s political empowerment on both sides of the aisle, both in this and future election cycles.
This is not the first time CAWP has issued caution ahead of a proposed "Year of the Woman." Check out this fall 1992 newsletter column from CAWP founder Ruth Mandel, which struck a similar tone. That year, women did nearly double their numbers in Congress, but remained just 10% of all members of Congress.
While this year saw a record number of women filing for Senate races, November’s ballots won’t offer a record number of women nominees. Still, depending on how the most competitive races of the cycle break on November 8th, we may see a net increase in the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate in January 2017.
Candidates and Nominees
Forty (28D, 12R) women filed to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016. The previous record number of women filing for the Senate was 36, set in 2010 (19D, 17R) and reached again in 2012 (20D, 16R). This year, 15 (11D, 4R) women have won their primaries, and Caroline Fayard (D) will be on the November 8th ballot in Louisiana’s same-day primary for the state’s open Senate seat. The record for women Senate nominees was set in 2012, with 18 women (12D, 6R) making it through their party primaries. There are two woman–versus-woman Senate races this year: in California (Kamala Harris [D] v. Loretta Sanchez [D]) and New Hampshire (Kelly Ayotte [R] v. Maggie Hassan [D]).
This year, more than twice as many Democratic as Republican women filed to run for the U.S. Senate. This is the largest partisan gap in female candidate filings in the past 24 years. Democrat women nominees also outnumber Republican women nominees this year with the largest partisan gap in female candidate nominations in over a decade.
It’s important to look at the types of contests in which women are running to determine their likelihood of winning. In 2016, 4 (3D, 1R) women are nominees for open U.S. Senate seats, compared to the 7 (4D, 3R) women who ran for open seats in 2014 (1). Three incumbents are seeking re-election and eight women are running as challengers.
Women in the 115th Congress
Twenty (14D, 6R) women currently serve in the U.S. Senate. Two incumbent women senators stepping down this year, including the “Dean” of the U.S. Senate women, Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). A new woman senator is guaranteed to be elected in California’s Senate race to replace Boxer, since the state’s top-two primary resulted in the nomination of two Democratic women – Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez. The winner of that race will become the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from California and only the third woman of color ever to serve in the Senate from any state (2). A Sanchez victory would give the Senate its first Latina.
Fifteen (11D, 4R) incumbent women senators are holdovers who will remain in office through the 115th Congress. Three (1D, 2R) incumbent women are up for re-election. Two of those women, Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Patty Murray (D-WA) are likely to keep their seats. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is engaged in a competitive bid for re-election against current New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan, but no matter the outcome, a woman will hold the NH seat. Their race is rated as a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report.
Based on the most recent ratings, Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) is favored slightly to win in her challenge against incumbent Illinois Senator Mark Kirk (R). Three more women candidates for the U.S. Senate, all Democrats, are in contests rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, including challengers Deborah Ross (NC) and Katie McGinty (PA), and Catherine Cortez Masto (NV), who is running for the open seat created by Senator Harry Reid’s (D) retirement. With major party nominees in four of the seven U.S. Senate races currently deemed toss-ups, women candidates will play a key role in determining the partisan balance of power in the U.S. Senate in 2017.
The remaining six women nominees for U.S. Senate seats face strong headwinds going into November. According to the Cook Political Report ratings, the Arizona race in which Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) bids to oust Senator John McCain (R-AZ) is leaning toward the incumbent. Patty Judge (D-IA) is rated likely to lose her challenge to incumbent Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The contests of three more women nominees – Kathy Szeliga (R-MD), Wendy Long (R-NY), and Misty Snow (D-UT) – are rated solidly in their opponents’ favor. Finally, while Caroline Fayard (D-LA) is still in the running for Louisiana’s Democratic Senate nomination (to be held on November 8th), that seat is considered solidly Republican.
In 2012, a record 5 (4D, 1R) new women were elected to the U.S. Senate. Based on current ratings, up to six new women, all Democrats, could be elected to the U.S. Senate this year (Duckworth-IL, Harris/Sanchez-CA, Hassan-NH, Masto-NV, McGinty-PA, and Ross-NC.) There are no likely Republican gains for women in the Senate, and one Republican woman – Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) is at risk of losing her seat. Accounting for retirements and current ratings, the number of women in the U.S. Senate in 2017 is likely to range between 19 and 23, not departing dramatically from the current 20.
What to Watch on Election Day
In addition to tracking the numbers of women winning U.S. Senate seats on Election Day and closely monitoring the most competitive races with women running (see table above), we will be watching these races where women have the potential to make history:
- California: Democrat Kamala Harris, if elected, will be the first multiracial woman elected to the U.S. Senate and the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from California. Harris identifies as Indian-American and African-American. If elected, she would also become the first Indian-American Senator in the United States (3). Under California’s top-two primary system, Harris is running against another Democrat: Loretta Sanchez. Sanchez, who currently represents California’s 46th congressional district, would also become the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from California if elected in November. She would also be the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate.
- Illinois: Democrat Tammy Duckworth, if elected, will be the second woman of color elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. She would also be the first woman military veteran elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat; incumbent Joni Ernst (R-IA) was the first female military veteran elected to the U.S. Senate.
- Maryland: If Republican Kathy Szeliga is unsuccessful in her bid to fill the state’s open Senate seat, as current ratings predict, Maryland is likely to have its first all-male congressional delegation since 1973. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D), who is retiring this year, has served in the U.S. Senate since 1987 (and before that served in the House starting in 1977). Representative Donna Edwards (D), the other woman in Maryland’s 114th Congress delegation, was unsuccessful in her bid for the nomination to replace Mikulski in the Senate.
- Nevada: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, if elected, will be the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Nevada. She would also be the first Latina ever elected to the U.S. Senate (perhaps earning this honor alongside California candidate Loretta Sanchez).
- New Hampshire: As in California, New Hampshire has two women running for the Senate. The incumbent, Kelly Ayotte, is one of six Republican women senators in the 114th Congress. She is the first Republican woman to represent New Hampshire in the U.S. Congress. Her challenger, Democrat Maggie Hassan, is the current Governor of New Hampshire. If elected, she would join Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who also served as Governor of New Hampshire, in representing the Granite State in the U.S. Senate.
- Pennsylvania: Democrat Katie McGinty, if elected, will be the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania. To date, Pennsylvania has sent seven women to the U.S. House, but currently has no women in its congressional delegation. According to current race ratings, McGinty has the greatest chance of all of Pennsylvania’s women congressional nominees of adding gender diversity to her state’s delegation in Washington, D.C.
Finally, the three states that currently have women-only delegations in the U.S. Senate – California, New Hampshire, and Washington – are likely to maintain that distinction. An all-woman delegation is guaranteed in California and New Hampshire, where women are all major party nominees; in Washington, incumbent Patty Murray (D) is highly likely to be re-elected.
The 2016 presidential election has brought questions of gender, sexism, and the role of women in politics to the forefront of national conversation. Are Americans ready to see a woman in the role of President, an office that has long been an exclusively male domain? How do our expectations about presidential masculinity—strength, “toughness,” military might—influence the way we evaluate the first female major party nominee? In what ways are voters’ impressions of Hillary Clinton, who has been a major presence in American politics for decades, influenced by the many examples of gendered (and often blatantly sexist) media coverage and comments from her opponent’s campaign?
It is difficult to untangle the effects of gender from the unique circumstances surrounding Clinton herself—her level of experience, name recognition, and many years in the public spotlight ensured that many voters knew who she was well before she announced her candidacy for president, and most voters already had strong opinions about her, as well. However, in order to get a better sense of some of the ways gender has mattered in this race, it may be useful to consider some recent work from political science on how gender stereotypes affect voting behavior, including a new article I wrote () that examines how participants in an experiment evaluated male and female candidates whose competence to serve in office was called into question. In general, I find that women who run for office are more vulnerable to information that casts doubt on their competence and experience than are men. Participants in two experiments liked “incompetent” women less than “incompetent” men and were less likely to vote for them, as well.
Scholars of women and politics have conducted many studies over the past several decades trying to determine whether and how gender-based stereotypes influence women who run for, and serve in, political office. Despite the large amount of attention devoted to this question, though, the evidence is somewhat inconclusive. Many studies have found differences by gender in the ways that candidates are evaluated—women are perceived as more liberal, compassionate, trustworthy, warm and emotional, but less competent, “tough,” and strong (e.g. ; Kahn 1996). However, some of the most recent work in this area seems to indicate that gender-based stereotypes are not automatically applied to women candidates and that other considerations, like political party affiliation, are much more important to voters than a candidate’s gender (Brooks 2013; Dolan 2014; Hayes 2011).
Yet a third group of studies have found evidence for a sort of “middle ground” for the effects of gender-based stereotypes, suggesting that they may matter for some women candidates in certain electoral contexts, but not in others. The extent to which gender stereotypes matter seems to depend on a number of factors, including the nature of the political advertisements used (), the policy issues emphasized (Lawless 2004; Holman et al 2011), and the amount or type of other information available during a campaign (Matson and Fine 2006; Ditonto, Hamilton and Redlawsk 2014).
The findings from my most recent study fall into this third category. The point of the study was to determine whether earlier findings that women candidates are often seen as less competent (e.g. Huddy and Terkildsen 1993; Schneider and Bos 2014) would hold if information related directly to a candidate’s competence was also available to voters—things like evaluations of a debate performance, comments from a staffer, or a newspaper editorial. I wanted to know how this sort of substantive, politically-relevant information would change voters’ perceptions of candidates, and whether it would matter differently for women candidates than for men. A previous study some colleagues and I conducted (Ditonto, Hamilton and Redlawsk 2014) found that participants in an experiment that simulated a political campaign sought out more information about a candidate’s competence and experience when that candidate was female. In that experiment, all of the information available about the candidates portrayed them positively—as very competent. However, if voters are seeking out more competence-related information for women candidates than for men, what happens when the information they encounter makes them seem less than totally competent?
In order to find out, I conducted a computer-based experiment that mimicked a presidential campaign between two fictitious (but realistic) candidates—one Democrat and one Republican. Each participant experienced a “campaign” in which various pieces of information about the candidates scrolled down their computer screen. They could click on whichever items they wanted in order to learn more about a particular topic, and their choices included things like the candidates’ policy positions, ideology, family, educational background, etc.—the same kinds of things that are usually available during a real political campaign.
The experiment varied two important factors within the campaign, however. First, half of the people saw two male candidates in the race (one in each party) while the other half saw a woman running in their own political party and a man running for the other party. Second, there was also a subset of information that related specifically to how competent the candidates seemed (how they did in a debate, how the candidate’s opponent talks about them, comments from a newspaper editorial, a description of the candidate’s prior political experience, how the candidate did while holding previous office, and a description of the candidate by a former staff member). Again, I split the sample of participants into two groups—for half of them, this information portrayed their party’s candidate as very competent. The other half saw information that made their party’s candidate seem less competent than one might hope for.
To sum up, participants saw a campaign for president in which they could either see two men running for office, or a woman running in their party and a man in the other party, and in which some of the information available to them either made their party’s candidate seem competent or incompetent. After going through the campaign, they were asked to vote for the candidate of their choice and also to tell me how much they liked their candidate on a 0-100 point “feeling thermometer.”
The results suggest that a candidate’s gender plays a big role in how much we care about his or her perceived competence. Women and men who were portrayed as competent did about equally well in both the outcome of the election and participants’ evaluations—candidate gender didn’t matter to them as long as the candidate seemed competent and qualified. When they were presented with a candidate who seemed less than competent, though, women candidates did far worse than men did. In fact, subjects who saw incompetent women in their party often rated the candidate in the other party as favorably or more favorably than they rated her, and were actually more likely to vote for the other candidate! This was a pretty unexpected finding, since party affiliation is almost always the strongest predictor of someone’s vote choice.
Importantly, incompetent male candidates didn’t suffer the same fate. Essentially, competent and incompetent men fared equally well—their chance of receiving a subject’s vote and the extent to which a subject liked them remained the same, statistically speaking, whether they were portrayed as competent or incompetent. In other words, participants didn’t seem to care whether their candidate was competent or not, as long that candidate was a man.
In a sense, these results are good news for women candidates. If they come across as competent and qualified, they can do just as well as men. This means that they are not automatically disadvantaged by stereotypes that women candidates are less competent than men. On the other hand, women seem to be disadvantaged by negative portrayals of their competence in ways that men simply are not. Perhaps we should be more surprised that subjects liked incompetent male candidates as much as they did!
The current presidential election may be a pretty good real-world example of this phenomenon at work. Hillary Clinton is widely considered to be one of the most well-qualified candidates ever to run for president, and even her detractors acknowledge that she has far more political experience than Donald Trump, at least in the traditional sense. Yet, there has been a great deal of talk about the different standards that the two are often held to by the media, and even by voters of their own parties. Trump’s seeming ability to get away with saying and/or doing just about anything without losing support is a marked contrast to Clinton, who is continually attacked for things like her “lack of judgment,” not looking “presidential enough,” and not being “authentic.” To be sure, there are many factors at play that contribute to these dynamics, but my findings suggest that that a double-standard when it comes to male and female candidates’ competence may certainly be part of the story.
Scholars have long lamented the lack of women candidates for public office. Attempts to recruit women candidates have been widespread, targeting older women with empty nests, younger women without children (or those not interested in having them), lawyers and businesswomen whose experience mirrors that of typical male candidates. But another pool is waiting to be tapped: losers, women who have previously run for office but did not win. Challenges to re-recruiting these women to run are deep-rooted in societal expectations of women. Yet, the 2016 presidential race offers two examples, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, who have not let political setbacks stop them from pursuing their goals. Their decisions to persist despite earlier failed campaigns should inspire other women who have run and lost to jump back in the fray.
The common refrain that “when women run, they win” refers to evidence that women and men have similar win rates in general elections (Newman 1994; Sanbonmatsu 2006). But what happens if they lose? Women are less likely than men to run for election after suffering a defeat (Dolan et al 2015). Convincing women (who are less often self-starters) to throw their hats into the ring in the first place takes time; sometimes it requires additional resources from political parties and women’s organizations. (See CAWP resource Poised to Run.) If the woman candidate loses her first election and sours on the prospect, that investment may never pay off. For women who suffer from self-doubts about their qualifications, a loss may provide an excuse not to run again. (Fox and Lawless 2010).
Yet the 2016 presidential campaign showcased two women candidates who dusted themselves off and got back in the game. Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in the 2008 Democratic primary was a bruising political defeat. Conceding the nomination to relative newcomer Senator Barack Obama, then-Senator Clinton said, “Although we were not able to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it has 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina lost a highly visible Senate race to incumbent Barbara Boxer in 2010. The return of both Clinton and Fiorina to the presidential race in 2016 to take yet another crack at high office is a welcome model for women recovering from election defeats at lower levels all across the country.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Fiorina’s senate campaign manager, Marty Wilson, said, “Carly was bummed after the loss, but I encouraged her to stay involved and run again. I told Carly she should run for president in 2012 and she said I was ‘Nuts.’” Fortunately, Fiorina changed her mind (with encouragement from a political insider). Her compelling performance in the August primary debates established her as a significant presence in the crowded Republican field.
Despite her loss in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton was identified early as the obvious choice for her party’s nomination in 2016, based in part on experience she gained as Secretary of State – a position she won as a consequence of both her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee and her strong showing in ’08.
One never knows what may follow even a losing campaign. Many women officeholders cite their campaigns for lower office as having signaled to powerbrokers their willingness and ability to serve in appointed positions unanticipated before their races. In Hillary Clinton’s case, seizing the opportunity to serve as Secretary of State under her 2008 opponent, Barack Obama, positioned her for her 2016 run, with the added credential leading many to call her the most qualified presidential candidate of the modern era.
There are plenty of reasons not to dust oneself off and try again. Campaigns are costly, both financially and emotionally, as well as in time that may be in short supply for women who are still responsible for the bulk of household maintenance and often breadwinning for their families. But there may be more at play as well.
Self-doubt has been documented among women in likely candidate pools, and it begins early. In analyzing college-age women and their pursuit of leadership opportunities on campus, Keohane et al 2003 found that at Duke University many women undergraduates were under the pressure of “effortless perfection: the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort”. It is possible that women candidates face similar social expectations (think supermom and having it all) and a hard-fought campaign loss is hardly evidence of effortless perfection.
So what will it take for women to overcome this? Angela Lee Ducksworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that success is largely dependent upon grit, described as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina”. Political campaigns certainly require stamina, and women’s individual tenacity should be supplemented by political parties who can provide volunteers, funds, and public statements of support to make it easier for women to take another chance. Like political campaigns, the adage exemplifying grit, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” may also be gendered. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University, has found that talented girls are less likely to persist following a failure because they perceive abilities to be innate rather than a consequence of effort and practice (Dweck and Leggett 1988). These beliefs may persist into adulthood, as Kay and Shipman (2014) find that women are more likely to blame themselves for failure and give credit to other factors when they succeed, while their male counterparts dismiss failure and claim credit.
Knowing that these gendered differences exist, it is important to highlight the number of men in public office who were not successful at first. They include President Bill Clinton in his 1974 Arkansas congressional race and President George W. Bush in his 1978 Texas congressional race. Even President Barack Obama lost a 2000 Illinois Democratic congressional primary before going on to win a Senate seat in 2004. Speaking to a broader audience, Johannes Haushofer, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, recently posted a CV of his failures, arguing that making his own failures visible to others would prevent them from wrongfully attributing their own failures to individual flaws rather than the external factors that could be at play.
In the context of a campaign, there could be any number of reasons why a candidate doesn’t receive the most votes irrespective of a candidate’s suitability. The knowledge gained from an initial loss is invaluable to a qualified candidate who may perceive her loss as an indictment of her abilities alone, when in reality she might just need a different campaign manager, a better communications strategy, or a race for a different type of office. Start-up companies across Silicon Valley have spoken out about the importance of failure and learning from our mistakes, indicating that value can come from experience – even negative experiences.
Publically admitting failure is certainly easier for those with privilege. Because male candidates are the default, men who lose and try again may be seen as the “comeback kid” or a “fighter”, while women may be tainted by the loss. It most certainly is easier for a man than a woman to overcome a loser association. That means women should be strategic in the selection of their races, but being strategic shouldn’t mean permanent retirement. It should mean learning from one’s mistakes and demonstrating the toughness that qualifies you for public service. With so few women running for and holding office, the pressure not to let down an entire gender is high. Furthermore, those with fewer resources don’t always have the option of another go-around. It is vital, then, that political parties and women’s organizations provide the institutional support that would make it easier for women to make a second attempt.
For their part, women who don’t win on that first try should take a lesson from Secretary Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina and go back at it, bringing even more as a consequence of the earlier defeat. In her commencement speech at the University of Rhode Island, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told graduates, “The ‘uh-oh’ moments are worth cherishing just as much as ‘ah-ha’ moments: Mistakes, failures, embarrassments and disappointments are a necessary component of growing wise”. Wisdom is surely a valuable commodity for public officials. Wisdom gained through failure is something previously unsuccessful women candidates can bring to the table, rather than something that should disqualify them from another campaign. We need more women in public office. Not perfect women – wise women. Sometimes that is going to mean stepping up one more time.