Why Wendy Davis’s announcement is a big deal

October 3, 2013
Texas Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Texas Democratic State Sen. Wendy Davis (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

When Wendy Davis announces Thursday that she is running for Texas governor, it will be a victory for women’s representation. Not because she’s likely to win. As a Democrat in a state where Republicans have monopolized statewide office since “Seinfeld” ended, she’s not.

But because the main barrier to electing more women in the United States is getting them to run in the first place, Davis’s emergence – the result of her 11-hour filibuster against an abortion bill in the state Senate in June – may be critical for encouraging other female candidates to throw their hats into the ring.

This is important to keep in mind, because popular discussions often identify sexism in the media or voter discrimination as the reasons that women constitute just 19 percent of Congress, and hold 10 percent of governor’s seats and 12 percent of big city mayor’s offices. But a spate of recent political science research suggests that those aren’t the primary impediments to women’s electoral success.

For instance, Deborah Brooks’ recently published book shows that voters don’t hold male and female candidates to double standards on the campaign trail. In a series of experimental studies, Brooks finds that female candidates who act tough, get angry (gated), shed tears or commit gaffes are treated no differently than male candidates who do the same thing. Recent work by Kathy Dolan as well as me and Jennifer Lawless finds the same: Voters don’t stereotype women politicians in ways that prove detrimental.

Nor do the media appear to threaten women’s fortunes. While a good deal of research has found that female candidates are covered less favorably and substantively than their male opponents (ungated, gated, gated), those patterns are absent from studies of recent elections. In an analysis of local news coverage of 2010 U.S. House elections, Lawless and I found that the amount and content of coverage was the same for male and female candidates. A study (gated) by several political scientists of the 2006 and 2008 senate and gubernatorial races found very small differences in the amount of trait- and issue-focused coverage for male and female candidates.

This is not to say all is hunky-dory. Women politicians still face unique challenges. For one thing, some of the apparent equality in media coverage and voter attitudes could be the result of female candidates conducting campaigns designed to preempt stereotypes that would otherwise hurt them.

But the emerging research suggests that the main reason that there aren’t more women in elective office is simply because they’re not running (something both Democratic and Republican strategists are trying to change). As research by Lawless and Richard Fox has found, women are less likely to view themselves as qualified to run and to be encouraged or recruited to run.

And that’s why Davis’s candidacy is a big deal. When female political leaders become more visible in the national media, young women become more likely to say that they plan to be politically active, according to researc by David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht. Similarly, in a cross-national study, Wolbrecht and Campbell find that when more women serve in a country’s national legislature, the more likely it is that both adolescent girls and adult women will discuss politics.

Since political engagement is a precursor to political ambition – and especially because political discussion tends to be less common among college-age women than their male peers – this is a necessary condition for the emergence of more female candidates.

Davis surely faces a steep climb toward the Texas governor’s mansion. But in making that ascent, win or lose, she is helping tether a future generation of women political leaders to her line.

Danny Hayes is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. His research focuses on political communication and political behavior. He is the co-author of Influence from Abroad, a book about Americans' views toward U.S. foreign policy.
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