The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can a woman win the presidency? Even asking the question discourages women from running.

When women run, they win as often as men do. So why don’t more run?

Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, along with other Democratic presidential hopefuls, walk arm-in-arm with African American leaders during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade in Columbia, S.C., on Jan. 20. (Randall Hill/Reuters)

In the Democratic debate last week, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders skirmished over whether Sanders told Warren that a woman can’t win the presidency. Sanders intimated that Warren was lying.

Most observers are focusing on what this dust-up means for the 2020 Democratic primary race. But there’s another concern. Research shows that when women candidates are belittled or their credibility or electability is questioned, it dampens other women’s political ambitions.

Why is the dispute important?

Currently, women make up only 23.2 percent of the House of Representatives, 26 percent of the Senate and 29.1 percent of U.S. state legislatures. When women run for political office, they are just as likely to win as men, research finds. But proportionally fewer women hold elected office, in part because fewer women run to begin with.

Bolstering women’s willingness to run for office, then, is essential to achieving gender parity in government. In 2018, record numbers of women ran and won; several women are vying for the Democrats’ presidential nomination. Some observers may be tempted to conclude that women’s hesitation has been conquered.

It’s not so. Research by political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard L. Fox suggests that the 2018 spike in women candidates was largely a “Trump effect,” a reaction to a candidate perceived as particularly hostile to women. Their post-2016 national sample survey indicates that women’s overall levels of political ambition remain stubbornly low. Research confirms that discounting female candidates, the way Warren alleges Sanders did, can reduce women’s political ambitions.

The TMC Gender Gap series examined gender issues in political science. Read it here.

Why don’t women run?

Far fewer women than men aspire to elected office, as Lawless and Fox found in 2013. Social scientists point out that American women are still shaped by traditional gender socialization, or raised to embrace traditional family roles. Unlike men, women rarely assume future partners will fully share these responsibilities; nor do they expect that future partners would quit a job or relocate to support the women’s professional aspirations. Many educated, professional women who seem appropriate for a political career work a “second shift” after returning home — and feel too time-crunched to run for office.

Further, women are socialized to expect that they should put others’ needs above their own. When they violate these expectations, they are often disliked, which women candidates must overcome. Politics, so long dominated by men, has a masculine ethos; women and men alike perceive political success as being linked to masculine traits such as self-promotion and fighting. Further, the people around potential female candidates — from parents to party chairs — often do not think to encourage them to run for office. Women themselves often do not envision pursuing such a male-coded profession, which could make them appear to be more aggressive than nurturing. Saying a woman can’t win the presidency reinforces all these internalized barriers.

This inflammatory ad reveals why Republican women of color have a hard time getting elected

What could encourage — or discourage — more women to run for office?

More women have been running and winning their races, particularly in the 2018 “blue wave,” which brought many women into office. That could help offset some of the discouraging influences. So could having two women — Amy Klobuchar and Warren — still appearing viable in the narrowing Democratic presidential field.

Women in office have been removing some institutional barriers to women’s political involvement and championing issues associated with women — both of which could encourage more women to run. For instance, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) pushed the Senate to permit senators to bring children on the Senate floor so she could continue to breast-feed her infant. Then-congressional candidate Liuba Grechen Shirley of New York asked the Federal Election Commission to allow candidates to use campaign funds for child care — and won, knocking down another barrier to women’s involvement. And Warren has been pushing for universal child care, which could free women up to run and also tell women that being politically involved could affect issues they care about.

On the other hand, women tend to be more election- and risk-averse than men, as Kristin Kanthak and Jonathan Woon found, and think that running for office will be harder for them than for men. Judgments like those aimed at Warren — whether as subtle as Sanders’s alleged comment or more overtly gendered accusations that she’s too “strident” — might discourage other women from running. Women are discouraged by reminders that women candidates face barriers that men do not, including sexist media coverage, intrusive questions about their life choices, overt sexual harassment, online misogynist abuse or accusations of lying.

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What can be done about it?

Our book offers various research-based suggestions about overcoming some of these barriers, noting strategies known to bolster women’s political ambitions. For example, women can practice a tactic called “name it, shame it, pivot” to respond to an overt sexist attack; they can also learn how to avoid internalizing coded attacks that leave them feeling like impostors. Those at colleges and universities can ask college-age women to plan to discuss how household and caregiving chores will be shared with a partner.

Attacks on women’s political ambitions, whether subtle or overt, will continue — and will discourage potential officeholders. They can be overcome only if tackled directly by teaching women to anticipate and respond effectively.

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Lori Poloni-Staudinger (@lori_poloni) is associate dean for personnel, research and graduate programs in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and a professor in the department of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University, as well as co-author (with J. Cherie Strachan, Shannon Jenkins and Candice Ortbals) of “Why Don’t Women Rule the World: Understanding Women’s Civic and Political Choices” (SAGE-CQ, 2019).

J. Cherie Strachan is a professor of political science at Central Michigan University, co-director of the Consortium for Inter-Campus SoTL Research, and co-author of the recently published women and politics text “Why Don’t Women Rule the World: Understanding Women’s Civic and Political Choices” (SAGE-CQ, 2019).