Between September 2015 and August 2016, our research team at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University-New Brunswick conducted interviews with 83 of the 108 women who served in the 114th Congress. The information we gathered from over 40 hours of member interviews is outlined in our recent report, Representation Matters: Women in the U.S. Congress. Included among our findings are key insights from congresswomen that not only demonstrate why it matters that a diverse group of women hold elective offices, but also make the case that this form of political power is worth fighting for, whether on the campaign trail or within policymaking institutions.
Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told us, “I do know this. This is not for the faint of heart, and you really have to be ready to make the fight.” But she added, “It’s worth it. It’s necessary for our country.” She is right, and below are some useful observations from the other congresswomen we interviewed that further make the case for women’s political representation.
We hope you will draw from these “5 Reasons More Women Should Run for Office” to encourage women to consider candidacy, urge others to support women’s representation, and contribute to the work already being done to increase the numbers of women in elected office nationwide.
1. Public service provides significant opportunities for women - including the opportunity to bring issues to policy agendas that would not otherwise be there.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) told us, “[Women members have made a difference by] raising issues that previously didn’t get the light of day.” Similarly, Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) explained, “There are just issues that would not have reached the top of the agenda without women there pushing to make sure.” These insights are in line with existing research demonstrating the ways in which women, and specific groups of women legislators, bring distinct priorities to the legislative agenda. They also expand policy agendas, as Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) noted, “I’m saying that Democratic women have carried issues that men just didn’t pay attention to or that were not [even] considered issues.”
Diverse women prioritize a diverse set of issues, making the case for electing leaders that represent the pluralism among women. Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA) provided one example of why this matters in agenda-setting:
“It’s a little bit different, because you know there are issues that disproportionately impact Latina women. So like our immigration policy and separating families, most white women don’t have to worry about that, but Latina women do. Most African American women don’t have to worry about that, but Latina women do if they have a family of mixed status. So there are certain issues that ... are unique to Latina women that—it is not to say that every white or black woman doesn’t experience that, I’m sure Caribbean immigrant families experience that, but it just disproportionately impacts Latinas. I hate when we say a certain issue is a woman’s issue because every issue is a woman’s issue, but certain policies disproportionately impact women, and I do feel like there are policies or areas, issues, that disproportionately impact Latina women in particular.”
Representative Alma Adams (D-NC) summarizes the importance of women’s policy advocacy most clearly in this excerpt: “I just want to reiterate that women need to be here, and they need to be here because everything impacts us and our families and our communities. And if we’re not here, then the issues that need to be talked about the most won’t be talked about. They won’t be addressed. You know, they’ll never get to the table. So we need to be...in the room, at the table, feet planted firmly under the table, so that we in fact have the kind of voice that we need to have...”
2. Women also bring distinct and diverse perspectives to legislative debates, often rooted in their own experiences.
Elected women don't just shed light on certain issues that might otherwise be ignored; they also contribute perspectives to legislative debates that otherwise might not be heard. Rooted in their own experiences as women, women bring diverse, credible, and authentic voices to policymaking.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-VT) explained: “Women’s life experiences are different from men’s. They’re not better. They’re not worse. But they are different. It is important for us to have people who have those experiences at the table so we can talk about those and we can respond to the challenges that half of the population in this country faces.” Some of those life experiences are related to caregiving, which remains disproportionately the responsibility of women in the U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge (D-OH) argued, “I think it is really important that people who are basically caregivers, that people who basically run our households, are the people who make decisions about what goes on in those households.”
Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA) noted how her perspective as a woman contributes to policy debates: “[B]ecause I am a woman I do think that I look... at legislation...and policy through the prism of ‘How does this impact women?’” But congresswomen rarely view policies through a singular lens of gender. Instead, they bring the plurality of their life experiences and identities to policy engagement.
For example, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) shared, “I find that representatives all are a product of our own experiences, too.... that does influence [us] at times because our experiences often drive our passions.... [I have] a child with special needs. And that has... not only introduced me to the disabilities community, but... I want to make sure that I’m giving... those issues a priority in Congress.”
Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) told us, “So in all of history prior to there being an out gay or lesbian person in the Senate, when they either discussed advancing civil rights for the LGBT community or... how to prevent the advancement, ... all of those discussions have occurred in rooms without voice from the LGBT community participating. And now they’re happening in rooms where I’m present and can represent a perspective.”
When Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) was present in debates over immigration reform on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, she also brought a distinct perspective. “ I would say mine was the only voice in [the Judiciary] Committee that spoke for the importance of family unity [in debates over immigration reform],” she told us. “And so I brought [that voice], ...not only as a woman but also as an immigrant. And this is why it is important to have minority representation on all of these committees. Because you have different life experiences, different perspectives, and women certainly bring that to any committee they are on.”
Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) explained that her life experience helps to challenge stereotypes that often pervade policymaking about individuals who rely on public assistance. “... I lived on food stamps and public assistance, single mother and all that stuff, which...is kind of normal for a lot of women living in this country,” she told us, adding, “And so I bring, like other black women bring and other women of color bring, whatever they went through and the barriers they faced, [and I’m] trying to knock down some of those to make things better for everybody.”
3. Women act as a voice for the voiceless, using their power as elected officials to advocate for those who are too often ignored in the halls of power.
The women on whose behalf Representative Lee (D-CA) speaks are among those populations that are often voiceless in policymaking institutions. Our interviews indicate that women – across parties, backgrounds, and chambers – are particularly motivated to give voice to underrepresented groups in their legislative work.
Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) explained, “In general I feel that it’s really important to be a voice for people who don’t feel anybody is listening to them... [W]hat... started me in politics to begin with is when I had a state legislator tell me I couldn’t make a difference because I was just a mom in tennis shoes. I thought, ‘Who are you to say that to me? Moms in tennis shoes have just as much right to be heard.’ So I’m always super sensitive to people who feel their voices aren’t heard or aren’t important because they are, and I want to speak out for them.”
Representative Ann Wagner (R-MO) shared her philosophy of service, “Our mission statement... centers around... serving a cause greater than one’s self... It talks about giving voice to the voiceless, and how important that is, and how we have to remember that’s why we’re put here in this legislative role... You can’t solve every challenge through legislation, but there are things we can do.”
Those things include “expanding opportunity and freedom” and “[recognizing] the dignity and worth of every person,” according to Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA), who added, “I think that part of the legacy of women in Congress is not only the promotion of women in a large percent of our population here, but how we expand the opportunity for everybody.”
4. Elected women change the face of political leadership and use their positions to encourage and empower other women.
Often the beneficiaries of inspiration and support from women who came before them, congresswomen discuss "paying it forward" as an opportunity – and responsibility – that comes with their public service. As Representative Susan Brooks (R-IN) told us, “We have...an opportunity to try to be role models for women and men in our states and in the country and [to] try and change the mindset about women and girls’ thinking about running for office.” Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) said that being a role model for women is something that she’s “taken to heart.” “I’m constantly meeting with young women who reach out to our office,” she explained, “Whether they’re from the district or they get in contact from across the country, to encourage them to step up to the plate and add their voices to the conversation.”
That work pays off, as multiple congresswomen told us – detailing stories in which they were reminded of how powerful it is for young people, especially, to see that elected leaders are not only older white men. Representative Joyce Beatty (D-OH) shared her own realization of this power: “So I am a female of color, how does that make a difference? It makes a difference when little African American girls can dream that they, too, can serve in Congress.... I never thought as a little girl that I would be sitting in the United States Congress. You know I was just hoping I would graduate from high school and get a job and be a good citizen, because I’m first-generation college. And so now to be able to sit there and vote on the most important issues that are before us and that run this country, and to go back home and sit in the classroom or to sit in the neighborhood center and be able to honestly say, ‘Somebody in this room—lots of you— can do this and yet do greater things.’ Then when they turn on the TV and they see a Rob in Kelly from the same district and state as the President of the United States, or they see a person from New York who sits on Energy and Commerce that is under 50 years of age and is an African American female, [or] when they see somebody from the Virgin Islands that grew up from the islands and came here and went to an Ivy League law school, and private boarding schools, they go, ‘Wow. I too can be that.’”
5. Women get things done, even in today’s polarized political environment.
CAWP research on state legislators shows that the primary motivation for women to run for office is a desire to make policy change. It’s no surprise, then, that women look at today’s politics and are deterred; when the narrative and evidence of gridlock and unproductivity prevail, women will look to other sites to make a difference. But the congresswomen we spoke with gave us many examples of accomplishment despite the polarized political environment in which they work. They emphasized that women’s results-oriented approach is effective in Congress, demonstrating the need for more women to run for and serve in elected offices at all levels.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) pointed out, “When you look at the things that have gotten done, the majority of them had at least one woman leading [them].” She credited this to women’s orientation to public service: “I think we are much more focused on solving problems and getting things done and less focused on the trappings of power, our name on a bill, all of the ego trappings with the job.” Many of her female colleagues agreed. For example, Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) said, “Guys have a tendency to seek a win, and we seek a win-win to get to a solution.” She even referred to elected women as “the leaders of the Get-‘er-Done Caucus.”
Few would argue against having more members of the “Get-‘er-Done Caucus” in today’s Congress, and in legislative bodies nationwide. Women are poised to fill those roles.
The 2016 election cycle broke relatively little ground for women’s representation in Washington. Aside from Hillary Clinton’s failure to shatter the ultimate glass ceiling in the presidential election race, the number of women set to serve in the 115th Congress next January remains stagnant. Among the Republican majority, women actually lost seats in the House of Representatives. While the newly re-elected Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has stated that 2017 was going to be about “doing big things for our country, ” it is worth considering the role that Republican women officeholders will play as policy makers and messengers as the Party hopes to enact significant reforms now that Republicans also control the White House.
Based on two important measures of clout, the number of women serving in party leadership and as committee chairs, Republican women’s voice as leaders in formulating in those “big things” promised by the Speaker may be muted. However, their voice as messengers to articulate the Party’s vision may be more prominent as Republicans continue to grapple with expanding their base of voters to include more women.
Come January, Republican women will again serve in the majority but in slightly smaller numbers than they did in the previous Congress with two fewer members. Twenty-one Republican women will serve in the House. Kelly Ayotte, the sole Republican woman senator up for re-election in this cycle, lost her race which brings the total number of Republican women senators serving in the institution to five. Republican women in both chambers account for less than 10 percent of their party’s caucuses. By comparison, Democratic women members significantly outnumber their Republican counterparts and, by virtue of the party’s minority status with fewer Democratic members, account for a much larger percentage, about a third, of their party’s caucuses in each chamber. Further, Republican women’s underrepresentation is also seen by their general absence in party leadership and as committee chairs.
Republican party leadership in the House and Senate is almost entirely comprised of white men. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was renamed as House Republican Conference Chair while Mimi Walters was named as sophomore representative. Of the nearly two dozen House committees, only two Republican women will serve as chairs; Virginia Foxx will chair the Committee on Education and the Workforce, and Susan Brooks will chair the Committee on Ethics. Two Republican women will chair Senate committees – Lisa Murkowski on Energy and Natural Resources, and Susan Collins on Aging. There are no Republican women in formal Senate leadership positions, although in the 114th Congress Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appointed four “counsels” to broaden Senate leadership, two of whom were women.
Previously, Republicans were open in recognizing the importance of women leaders. Indeed, in 2014, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers stated, “Messengers are important, and having a broad spectrum of members who represent that background – youth, women, Hispanics, every walk of life – is important.” More recently, however, Republicans have not only rejected the idea of gender diversity within the Party as a goal but dismissed it as “identity politics” embraced by the losing Democrats. Republican pollster and Trump campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, agreed with Bernie Sanders who recently called on Democrats to move away from “identity politics.” Sanders advocated for a focus on progressive issues instead.
Republican women seeking elective office may have cause to downplay their gender on the campaign trail. Danielle Thomsen finds that Republican women candidates are disadvantaged in contested primaries as they are incorrectly perceived to be less conservative than their male primary opponents. Moreover, in the important area of campaign fundraising, Melody Crowder-Meyer and Rosalyn Cooperman find that Democratic and Republican donors differentially prioritize using money to increase the number of women representatives. Karin Kitchens and Michele Swers find that campaign finance networks available to Republican women candidates, particularly in primaries, is significantly underdeveloped. For their part, rank and file Republicans express a similar disinterest in gender diversity. In an October 2016 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) survey, a majority of Americans (58 percent) believe the country would be better off if there were more women serving in public office. However, the support for women serving differs significantly based on respondents’ party affiliation. More than three quarters (77 percent) of Democrats agree but fewer than four in ten (37 percent) of Republicans – including only 42 percent of Republican women – agree that the country would be better off with more women holding public office. In other words, if anyone is bothered by the low profile of Republican women members in the Republican-led Congress, it’s probably not Republicans.
And yet despite these myriad challenges, Republican women members will likely serve an important and highly visible role in promoting the Party’s message in the 115th Congress, particularly in articulating components of the House Republicans’ “Better Way” vision and Republican Party policy messages more broadly. Melissa Deckman’s work on Tea Party women illustrates how conservative women frame conservative issues in women-friendly ways. For example, women leaders on the right argue that cutting taxes is good for American families as it allows them to spend money as they best see fit; or, they maintain that lowering the national debt safeguards future generations. As congressional Republicans work to address policy priorities like replacing the Affordable Care Act, reforming the tax code, or overhauling immigration regulations, Republican women members are particularly well suited to articulate why these policies will benefit American families.
In the 2016 election, Republicans performed exceptionally well with white working class men and women. Even so, the Party faces challenges in appealing to women voters, particularly college-educated women and women of color, as it becomes an even whiter, mostly male party in its leadership. In the 115th Congress there will be fewer Republican women members than in Congresses past. Despite the Party’s rejection of identity politics, party leaders will likely rely heavily on these Republican women members to articulate a policy vision that is both women and family friendly if they wish to remain in control of Congress.
At the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), we have been getting a lot of inquiries about how to get politically engaged and how to encourage other women to do so. Below is a list of ideas and action steps to keep you inspired and engaged. Please share widely, and contact me if you have other ideas I should add. Happy holidays!
Take a Seat at the Table (and help other women pull up their chairs)
The late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said: “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” The fastest and most effective way to make change at policymaking tables is to sit there. Help women take their seats by helping build and sustain the infrastructure needed for women to be successful public leaders.
- Run for office. Sign up for a campaign training program in your area. CAWP has a National Network of Ready to Run® Campaign Trainings for Women around the country. If there’s not one in your state, check out our map of political and leadership resources for women. There are a whole host of organizations, including She Should Run, Emerge America, the Excellence in Public Service Series, and more. Check them out!
- Ask a woman to run. And then tell her you will help her, and find others to help her (and follow through.) And then ask another woman. And another. And another, and…well, you get the idea. If you are already an elected official, it’s particularly important to encourage a woman (or women) you know to run for office. Research that shows that women are far less likely than men to get asked to run for office by formal political actors, including other elected officials and party leaders. Your encouragement could make all the difference. Thank you for your service!
- Start a campaign training program to encourage other women to run. Connect with CAWP on how to launch Ready to Run® in your state. Our programs are nonpartisan, but if party or certain issues are your thing, check out any of the organizations mentioned or on our map.
- Get appointed to office. Did you know that there are hundreds of thousands of positions available on state, county and local boards and commissions around the country? Did you also know that appointed positions often have significant policymaking authority? Start researching the boards and commissions in your town, county, or state and find out how to get appointed to the ones that interest you. Feel overwhelmed about how to start? One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was from a woman who was concerned about an environmental issue in her town. She found the local commission responsible for overseeing that issue and made a point of showing up at each meeting and asking at least one questions publicly. She began to build her public profile on that issue. She eventually became a member of that commission.
- Start a project to encourage other women to seek appointive office. During open gubernatorial election years, CAWP runs a Bipartisan Coalition for Women’s Appointments here in New Jersey. The goals are: to create the expectation within both major parties and the campaigns of their gubernatorial candidates that women will be included in significant state government positions in even greater numbers than in any past administration at every level of appointment – from cabinet positions to unpaid boards and commissions; and to create a “talent bank” of resumes from New Jersey women interested in being considered for appointments in the next administration.Other states have had appointments projects. Interested in creating one in your state? Contact me.
- Read this case study on New Jersey by scholars Susan J. Carroll and Kelly Dittmar. It examines the reasons why New Jersey was able to rise from the bottom ten of all states for women serving in its legislature to the top of the pile (we currently rank 11th.) It was mix of factors, but one thing is for certain: change required intervention and lots of people paying attention. Use it to start discussions with other women leaders in your state about how to build a political infrastructure supportive of women candidates.
- Start, join, and support an organization dedicated to political parity. A number of groups exist all over the country, including the ones mentioned earlier, but also the National Women’s Political Caucus, Higher Heights for America, Hispanas Organized for Political Equality (HOPE), the National Congress of Black Women, and many more. Look for resources in your state on our resource map; if there isn’t an organization, think about creating the infrastructure yourself. Over the years, I’ve met women from around the country who took a look around their state and realized that there wasn’t an organization or network dedicated to women’s public leadership or parity, so they started their own. Women Lead Arkansas and the Institute for Women in Politics of Northwest Florida are just two examples. It takes a lot of work, but we need more of us.
- Join your party organization. Information can be found on the national Democratic and Republican party organization sites.
- Seek party leadership position. If you are already a member of a political party, seek out an official leadership role with the party organization. In New Jersey, for example, all but two counties have male party chairs. Time for some women at the helm.
- If you are already a party leader, take the time to mentor women who could come along the leadership ladder with you. (See #2 above.) Lift as you climb!
- Volunteer on a campaign. Take the time to volunteer and learn as much as you can about the campaign and political campaign organizing. Take a campaign training class (see #1.)
Give as much as you can, depending on your circumstances. I guarantee you, no amount is too small. Give more if you are in a position to. But seriously, money talks. Give money to the people and causes you support. Try to make it a regular part of your giving – not just at election time, but all throughout the year. Women candidates face challenges raising money, according to Open Secrets.org.
- Give to women candidates. Even if they don’t live in your district, it’s worth supporting women candidates whose values match yours. You can always find a list of women candidates on CAWP’s Election Watch page – do research on the ones that may be a fit for you. Organizations like Women Count, Maggie’s List, Higher Heights for America, as well as other political action committees (PACs), are useful resources for giving to and finding women candidates. A full list of PACs supporting women candidates can be found on our Political & Leadership Resource Map.
- Start a PAC supporting women candidates. Here’s a quick answer guide from the Federal Election Commission, but for state or local PACs, you will want to check your state’s election commission for state-specific rules and guidelines. Campaigns for federal office are governed by federal rules, while campaigns within a state are governed by the rules of the state.
- Give money to advocacy organizations focused on issues you believe in. Pick at least one or two causes that are most important to you, and find the organizations that best meet your goals on those issues. Sign up to be a regular supporter – remember, no amount is too small. Once a year, evaluate your advocacy giving and readjust. Can you give more? Are there other issues about which you have become passionate?
- Follow the money. Use OpenSecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics, to look up where candidates or PACs are getting their money and how they are spending it. Use this to make informed decisions about where to spend your own money and to advocate for transparency in campaign finance.
- Support the work of research centers and scholars dedicated to studying women’s public leadership. Well, this is an outright ask: we need your support. The Center for American Women and Politics has been dedicated to examining and tracking women’s political participation over the past 45 years. We simply cannot do this work without the support of our generous donors. Other organizations include the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University, the Carrie Chapman Catt Center at Iowa State University, the Center for Women’s Leadership at Portland State University, the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Many more can be found at our Political & Leadership Resource Map.
Become a Citizen Lobbyist
Our democracy hinges on participation from many people. If you are not running for office, you can have a voice in legislative processes in a variety of ways.
- Attend legislative hearings. Open public hearings happen all over the country almost every week. Look at the schedule for upcoming hearings on issues or committees you care about. Take a drive to your statehouse and check them out. Learn about the process. Get to know the elected officials working on the issues you care about (committee members, etc.)
- Give testimony at legislative hearings. Anyone can sign up to give testimony at a hearing. Make your voice heard. Do your research and prepare your remarks. Here’s a handy guide from the Oregon Legislature on how to give testimony.
- Contact your elected representatives. Write, email and call your elected officials – the only way they know how you feel about an issue is if they hear from you. Make this a regular habit; don’t take for granted that others are doing it or tell yourself it doesn’t matter. As this former Congressional staffer pointed out, it does matter (she also gives great tips on how best to contact members of Congress, but don’t stop there. Find out how your state and local representatives are, and make a point to contact them about state and local issues.)
Groom the Next Generation
It’s more important than ever to provide the tools and resources to help young people rethink leadership and refocus the picture, because if a girl can’t imagine a woman leader, how can she become one? And if a boy sees only men in leadership roles, what will convince him to support aspiring women leaders?
- Invite a woman public leader to speak to your classroom or youth group. CAWP created our Teach a Girl to Lead™ (TAG) project to make women’s public leadership visible to the next generation. What better way to do that than have women public leaders talk to kids about politics and government? For sample invitation letters and discussion points, go here.
- Assign readings on women's political leadership to students, or read with your kids. Plenty of book suggestions by age, from kindergarten through adults, can be found here. Have a family movie night coming up? Suggestions can be found here.
- Arrange to take a class or youth group on a statehouse tour with a gender lens.
- Incorporate these exercises and activities about women’s public leadership in classrooms or youth programs.
- Talk to kids about politics and government. Explain, early and often, what it means to be a good citizen and to be part of a participatory democracy. Answer their questions. Take them with you to legislative hearings and other public events. Point out city hall when you drive by. Tell them why you served on jury duty recently. Talk about things you like and things you’d like to change in your government. Make public service and government a regular part of life for them.
- Support organizations dedicated to building girls’ political leadership. Our Teach a Girl to Lead™ project needs your support to continue to provide new resources and programs. There are also several organizations dedicated to girls political leadership, including IGNITE, Running Start, and the Girls and Politics Institute. Spread the word. Donate scholarships to make it possible for more girls, particularly those from underserved populations, to participate. Donate to our Teach a Girl to Lead™ project!
Build Your Personal Leadership Style & Feed Your (Civic-Minded) Soul
Sometimes you need inspiration or advice on your road to public leadership.
- Talk to an elected woman or a woman party leader. Make an appointment or, if you know her personally, invite her for a cup of coffee. Ask her these questions: why did you run? What is the best thing about public service? How can I be of help to you?
- Read a biography about a women public leader. Here are few suggestions to get started: Eleanor Roosevelt’s You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life, My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Political Woman: The Big Little Life of Jeane Kirkpatrick. More can be found on our Teach a Girl to Lead™ site (filtered by age for grown-up titles.)
- Find your own public voice. Lots of people are nervous about public speaking, but you have to be able to articulate your message and inspire your audience. Learn how to do that by reading The Well-Spoken Woman by expert Christine Jahnke.
- Watch women public leaders tell you their stories on MAKERS.com. You can find more video conversations with women leaders here.
Above all, get and stay involved. Go forth and lead!
There are 312 statewide elected executive offices nationwide. Not all of these offices are up for election in 2016. This post reviews women’s presence among the candidates competing for the positions being contested this year.
Candidates and Nominees
Seventy (40D, 27R, 3NP) women filed to for statewide elected executive offices in 18 states in 2016. This includes 6 (3D, 3R) women who filed to run for governor in 5 states and 16 (10D, 6R) women who filed to run for lieutenant governor in 9 states. The remaining 48 (27D, 18R, 3NP) women filed for 11 different statewide elected executive offices in 16 states (attorney general, comptroller, corporation commissioner, insurance commissioner, labor commissioner, public lands commissioner, public service commissioner, secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer, superintendent of public instruction).
There are only 12 states with gubernatorial elections this year, making it making it impossible to achieve any new records at this level. The record number of women filing for governor is 34, set in 1994 (18D, 15R, 1ACP). No women filed in half of the states holding gubernatorial elections this year. Among those who did, women candidates earned party nominations for governor in only 2 states: incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown in Oregon and Democrat Sue Minter in Vermont. The record for women gubernatorial nominees is 10, set in 1994 (6D, 3R, 1ACP) and reached again in 1998 (6D, 4R), 2002 (9D, 1R), 2006 (5D, 5R) and 2010 (5D, 5R).
Just 6 (4D, 2R) women are nominees for lieutenant governor this year, far below the record number of 29 female nominees for lieutenant governor in 1994, a year when 36 states held gubernatorial elections. In 2016, 3 (2D, 1R) women candidates are challengers and 3 (2D, 1R) are running for open seats. Among this year’s lieutenant governor candidates are two women of color, both challengers: Christina Hale (D-IN), who is Latina, and Linda Coleman (D-NC), who is Black.
Thirty-four (19D, 14R, 1NP) women are nominees in 14 states for the remaining statewide elected executive offices. Fifteen (7D, 8R) are incumbents, 5 (3D, 2R) are challengers, and 14 (9D, 4R, 1NP) women are running for open seats. Women of color are one-fifth (5D, 1R, 1NP) of these nominees, including 3 (2D, 1NP) Black women, 2 (2D) Native American women, and 2 (1D, 1R) Latinas.
Women in Statewide Elected Executive Offices in 2017
Women currently hold 75 (32D, 42R, 1NP), or 24%, of the 312 statewide elected executive offices nationwide, including 6 (3D, 3R) women governors. One incumbent woman governor, Maggie Hassan (D-NH), is running for the U.S. Senate this year. In order to maintain women’s current level of representation in gubernatorial offices, both female nominees will have to win their races this year. According to the Cook Political Report, Governor Kate Brown (D-OR) is likely to keep her seat. Sue Minter’s (D) contest in Vermont is rated as a “toss-up” in the final days before the election. It is certain that we will not see a record number of women governors in 2017. The record number of women serving as governor simultaneously is nine, achieved in 2004 and 2007.
Gubernatorial Elections and Female Holdovers, 2016
Twelve (4D, 8R) women currently serve as lieutenant governors. None are up for re-election this year. There will be a gain of at least one female lieutenant governor in 2017 because two women are competing against each other in Indiana. Democrat Bethany Hall-Long is also favored to win her bid for lieutenant governor of Delaware this year, as Democrats have held this seat since 1993.
Thirty-eight (13D, 25R) of the remaining 57 women currently serving in statewide elected executive office are not up for election in 2016, retaining their posts through 2017. At least one of those women may leave her post, however. California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D) is currently favored to win the U.S. Senate race in her state.
What to Watch on Election Day
In addition to tracking the numbers of women winning statewide elected executive offices on Election Day, we will be watching these races where women have the potential to make history:
- Indiana: Democrat Christina Hale, if elected, will be the first Latina elected to statewide elected executive office in that Indiana. She is running against another woman, Republican Suzanne Crouch.
- Missouri: Democrat Robin Smith, if elected, will be the first woman of color elected to statewide elected executive office in Missouri. Democrat Teresa Hensley, if elected, will be the first woman Attorney General of Missouri.
- North Carolina: Democrat Linda Coleman, if elected, will be the first woman of color elected to statewide elected executive office in North Carolina.
- North Dakota: Democrats Ruth Buffalo and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun are two of three Native American nominees for statewide office in North Dakota this year. If elected, they will be the first women of color elected to statewide elected office in North Dakota. They would also be just the second Native American woman ever elected to statewide executive office nationwide; Denise Juneau (D-MT) was the first Native American woman elected to statewide elected executive office in 2009.
- Vermont: Republican Deborah Bucknam, if elected, will be the first woman attorney general of Vermont.
- Washington: Democrat Erin Jones, if elected, will be the first woman of color elected to statewide elected executive office in Washington. Democrat Pat McCarthy, if elected, will be the first woman state auditor of Washington.
- West Virginia: Democrat Mary Ann Claytor, if elected, will be the first woman of color elected to statewide elected executive office in West Virginia.
For the latest numbers and information about women running for office in 2016, visit CAWP’s Election Watch 2016. Election results will be posted as they are reported on CAWP’s website and social media.
 Women who are third party candidates are included if their parties have recently won statewide offices. ACP refers to “A Connecticut Party.”
In this post, we take a first look at women running for state legislative seats in 2016. The detail and predictability of our data is limited at this level due to the high number of candidates and races, but our outlook shows that we enter Election Day with a record-level number of female state legislative nominees, with enough poised to win that we expect an increase in women’s state legislative representation in 2017.
State Legislative Nominees
In 2016, 2602 women are state legislative nominees in the 44 states holding state legislative elections, marking a new record. This number only includes major party nominees (1702D, 891R), non-partisan nominees in Nebraska (5), and third-party nominees who are incumbents (4 independents). This year, 482 (297D, 180R, 5NP) women are nominees for state senate seats and 2120 (1405D, 711R, 4I) are nominees for state house seats.
Three hundred and two (192D, 105R, 4NP, 1I) additional women are holdovers that are guaranteed seats in 2017. The highest number of women nominees for state legislative seats since CAWP began tracking these numbers was 2537, set in 2010 – a year in which 46 states held legislative elections. Thus, even in a year where fewer state legislative seats are being contested, more women will be on the ballot.
Total Women Nominees and Winners for State Legislatures, 1976-2016
Of the 2602 women nominees running this year, 1208, or 46.4%, are incumbents. Seven hundred and fifty-seven women, or 29.1%, are running as challengers and 637 women, or 24.5%, are running in open seat contests. Among female state house nominees, 46.2% are running as incumbents, 30% are running as challengers, and 24.8% are running in open seat contests. Among female state senate nominees, 47.5% are incumbents, 29.4% are running as challengers, and 23% are running in open seat contests.
The number of Democratic women state legislative nominees in 2016 (1702) is the greatest we’ve recorded, up from the previous high of 1625 in election 2014. The number of Republican women nominated this year (891) is up only one from the number on the ballot in 2014 (890). This does not mark a record high for Republican women state legislative nominees since we began tracking these numbers in 1992.
While the overall trend between and across parties is one of relative stasis, as is evident in the flat lines in the graphs above and below, the increase in Democratic women nominees this year may foreshadow a more significant increase in women’s state legislative representation in 2017.
Total Major Party Women Nominees for State Legislatures, 1992-2016
Women in State Legislatures 2017
Today, 1805 (1081D, 705R, 11NP, 7I) women serve in state legislatures, including 442 (263D, 167R, 11NP, 1I) female state senators and 1363 (819D, 538R, 6I) female members of state houses. They represent 24.4% of all 7383 state legislators nationwide. The percentage of women state legislators has remained nearly flat over the past two decades, as is evident in the line graph below. As the chart above shows, women’s state legislative representation increases as the number of women nominees rises. With a rising number of women nominees this year, we should see an increase in women’s state legislative representation.
Percent of Women State Legislators, 1971-2014
Currently, 398 (367D, 30R, 1NP) women state legislators, or 21.9% of all women legislators, are women of color. Because we are unable to track the race of state legislative candidates prior to Election Day, we do not know the racial identification and breakdown of women nominees this year.
CAWP will be tracking the numbers of women winning state legislative seats on Election Day to determine how women fare nationally, by chamber, by state, and by party. We will monitor trends in women’s representation and watch for shifts in the balance of partisan power in state legislative chambers, especially where women hold top leadership positions.
 No state legislative elections will be held this year in AL, LA, MD, MS, NJ, and VA.
 Because AL and MD hold state legislative elections every four years and LA, MS, NJ, and VA hold state legislative elections in odd-numbered, only 44 states are holding state legislative elections this year. Minnesota’s state senate holds elections in all years ending in 0, 2, and 6.
What will the U.S. House of Representatives look like in 2017? Combining CAWP data with race ratings from the Cook Political Report reveals that women may well reach a new high in numerical representation in the 115th House, but that outcome relies upon favorable breaks in the most competitive races. Moreover, the most positive outcomes in 2016 are likely to come for Democratic women candidates, who are best situated to take new seats, while Republican women are likely to see a net loss in their ranks.
Candidates and Nominees
Two hundred and seventy two (176D, 96R) women filed to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2016. The record for women House candidates was set in 2012, with 298 women (190D, 108R) filing. This year, 167 women (120D, 47R) have won their primaries, just barely setting a new record for women House nominees. The previous record was set in 2012, with 166 women (118D, 48R) making it through their party primaries.
Total Women Candidates Filed for U.S. House, 1992-2016
Total Women Nominees and Winners for U.S. House, 1976-2016
It’s important to look at the types of contests in which women are running to determine their likelihood of winning. In 2016, 19 (14D, 5R) women are nominees for open U.S. House seats, compared to the record high of 39 (26D, 13R) women running for open seats in 2012. As the charts below show, women have fallen short of making history as open seat nominees in either major party this year. Democrats have broken one record this year, exceeding the previous high of 118 total nominees for the U.S. House (set in 2012) by two.
Total Women Nominees for Open U.S. House Seats, 1976-2016
Total Women Candidates Filed for U.S. House by Party, 1976-2016
Total Women Nominees for U.S. House by Party, 1976-2016
Women in the 115th Congress
It is likely that the total number of women serving in the U.S. House will rise in the 115th Congress from the 84 women members (62D, 22R) in the 114th Congress, but the size of that increase depends on how the most contentious races of this cycle break for women candidates. Importantly, there is a partisan disparity in the prospects for women’s congressional success this year.
While we know that eleven current women members (8D, 3R) are leaving because of retirements, primary losses, and bids for other offices, four women candidates (3D, 1R) are very likely to become new members of the 115th Congress, based on the most recent ratings from the Cook Political Report. Democratic women candidates are much better represented among the remaining prospects for the 115th freshman class. Another two Democratic women newcomers (2D) are rated as likely or leaning to win House seats this year. Finally, 10 possible new women members (9D, 1R) are competing in contests rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report as of this week, with only one Republican among them. Two of these women are competing against each other in the competitive race for the open seat in New York’s 22nd district. There are currently no women incumbents in races deemed as toss-ups or possible losses, though Republicans Mia Love (R-UT) and Barbara Comstock (R-VA) are in the most vulnerable (labeled “lean Republican” by Cook) races this year. Based on these numbers, the number of Republican women in the U.S. House will almost certainly decline from the 114th to the 115th Congress; including a win in a toss-up race for Republican candidate Claudia Tenney (NY-22), Republican women are favored to win 21 seats this year, down from the 22 currently serving in the U.S. House.
Four (4D) of the five (4D, 1R) non-incumbent women most favored to win House seats (in races deemed safe or likely wins for their party by Cook Political Report) are women of color. In fact, of the five open-seat races with women candidates deemed as solid or likely for their party’s success, four are women of color. They include two Black women (Val Demings [FL-10] and Lisa Blunt Rochester [DE-At-large]) and two Asian American women (former Representative Colleen Hanabusa [HI-1] and Pramila Jayapal [WA-7]). Jayapal who would become the first Indian American woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. The only other woman candidate equally favored to become a freshman member of the 115th Congress is Republican Liz Cheney, running for Wyoming’s at-large seat.
In 2014, 12 new women (7D, 5R) were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. If more than half of the toss-up races listed break in women candidates’ favor, we may meet or exceed that number this year. However, we are highly unlikely to match the 19 new women that were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 or approach the size of the female freshman class we saw after the 1992 election, known as the “Year of the Woman.”
Women Members of the Freshman Class, U.S. House of Representatives, 1976-2014
What to Watch on Election Day
In addition to tracking the numbers of women winning U.S. House 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:
- DE-At-large: Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester, if elected, will be the first woman ever elected to Congress from Delaware. Delaware is one of just three states (along with MS and VT) that have never sent a woman to Congress. Rochester would also be the first person of color to represent Delaware in Washington, DC.
- IA-1: Democrat Monica Vernon, if elected, will be first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Iowa. She is challenging incumbent Rod Blum (R) in a contest currently rated as a toss-up. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) became the first woman ever elected to Congress from Iowa in 2014. Kim Weaver (D) is also competing for Iowa’s 4th Congressional District seat, a seat deemed solidly Republican.
- NH-1 and HI-1: Democrats Carol Shea-Porter (NH-1) and Colleen Hanabusa (HI-1) are favored to win congressional seats they formerly held. Shea-Porter has served three terms in the U.S. House, losing re-election in 2014. That year, Hanabusa ran for the U.S. Senate and lost after serving two terms in the U.S. House.
- NY-22: Republican Claudia Tenney and Democrat Kim Myers are in a tight race to win this open seat. This is the only woman-versus-woman House race rated as competitive this year. Fourteen other House races have two female nominees this year, and all four of Hawaii’s nominees for the state’s two House seats are women.
- WA-7: Democrat Pramila Jayapal, if elected, will be the first South Asian American woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. She would also be the first woman of color to ever serve in Washington’s congressional delegation.
- WY-At-large: Republican Liz Cheney, if elected, will be the first woman elected to hold the same U.S. House seat that her father once held (1979-1989). Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) succeeded her father Frank in the U.S. Senate. Other women members – including Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) have had fathers who have served in Congress before them, but not in the same seats.
Finally, while two states with no women currently serving in the U.S. House (Delaware and Iowa) have the potential to add women members to their 115th House delegations, Maryland, which currently has one woman House member and one woman Senator, is very likely to have no women in its congressional delegation come January 2017. Sixteen other states are unlikely to add women to their all-male U.S. House delegations in 2017: AK, AR, GA, ID, KY, LA, MS, MT, NE, ND, OK, PA, RI, SC, VT, and WV. Women are nominees in 8 of these 16 states, but they are all competing in races rated as solid or likely wins for the party of their opponent.
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.
Let’s stipulate that neither party even approaches gender parity among its elected officials; except for the very rare local council, it’s nearly impossible to find places where women are represented at levels that match their numbers in the population.
But one of the key reasons that the number of women in elective office remains surprisingly low is the paucity of Republican women. The imbalance in the proportion of elected women from the two major parties is a fixture of American politics; Democrats have long had a substantially greater percentage of women among lawmakers at the federal and state levels than Republicans. What would the numbers of women officeholders look like if the proportion of women in the GOP matched Democrats’ level of women’s representation?
In the U.S. Senate, there are currently 20 women, 14 Democrats and 6 Republicans. The Democratic women constitute 30 percent of the Democratic delegation: 14 women/46 senators (including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats). If the Republican side, with 54 senators, were 30 percent women, there would be 16 GOP women, giving us a total of 30 women in the Senate, an increase of 10 from today.
The same process yields a US House with 81 Republican women and a total of 143 women (rather than the current 84). Applying the formula to state legislatures, we would see 2,493 women instead of the current 1,808.
Some might note that these numbers don’t mean much on their own. But whatever distinctive qualities women bring to elective office, we’d have a lot more of them if Republican delegations looked more like their Democratic counterparts.
D women as a
% of all D’s
R women as a
% of all R’s
If R’s had the same %
of women as D’s
|The total # of women would be (as compared to the current #):|
|U.S. Senate||30% (14/46)||
|30% of 54=16||30 (20)|
|U.S. House||33% (62/188)||9% (22/246)||
33% of 246=81
|State Legislatures||34% (1084/3164)||17% (705/4117)||34% of 4117=1411||2495 (1808)|