Although Sen. Hillary Clinton announced only three days ago that she is officially suspending her presidential campaign, historians will debate for decades to come whether a faulty Clinton campaign strategy, the electorate’s desire for change or American society’s undisguised sexism was the most significant factor in derailing her historic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Despite the prominence of a handful of women in the national political arena, such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the sexism theory already has numerous subscribers. In a January 2008 New York Times op-ed that quickly achieved iconic status, Gloria Steinem posited gender as “probably the most restricting force in American life” and insisted that if a hypothetical “Achola Obama” — analogous in background and experience to Sen. Barack Obama in every respect but sex — had entertained notions of running for national office, “her goose would have been cooked long ago.”
But in a new study published by the Brookings Institution, political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox dispute the conventional wisdom that there are relatively few female elected officials solely because women face significant gender-based hurdles when running for political office. The U.S. ranks 84th in the world in terms of the percentage of women (16.3) in its national legislature — trailing Rwanda, Costa Rica and Switzerland, among others — and even falls under the international average of 17.5 percent.
But “in terms of fundraising and vote totals,” write Lawless and Fox, “the consensus among researchers is the complete absence of overt gender bias.”
Women are underrepresented in our local, state and national governments, according to Lawless and Fox, because they do not run: “Women, even in the highest tiers of professional accomplishment, are substantially less likely than men to demonstrate ambition to seek elected office. These results hold regardless of age, partisan affiliation, income and profession.”
The researchers base their findings on a survey they conducted of more than 2,000 men and women prominent in law, business, education and local politics — the typical feeder pool for higher office — to gauge these leaders’ interest in and preparation for a state or national political campaign. (Their 2008 survey was a follow-up to a similar 2001 survey that served as the basis for their 2005 book, It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office.) Based on the data they collected, they developed five explanations for why men are almost 35 percent more likely than similarly qualified women to consider running for office. The deciding factors included disparities in recruitment, family responsibilities, self-image, perceptions of bias and attitudes about campaigning.
Lawless and Fox conclude from their research that a more important factor than sexism in the paucity of women holding elective office is that women receive less encouragement to run from friends, family, colleagues and those already involved in politics. “The lack of recruitment appears to be a particularly powerful explanation for why women are less likely than men to consider running for office,” they write in the study. “Women are just as likely as men to respond favorably to the suggestion of a candidacy, but they are less likely than men to receive it.”
The researchers highlight the increased prominence of women’s organizations — partisan and otherwise — in recruiting political candidates. More than a quarter of the women in the survey reported that such an organization had approached them about running for office. “These numbers,” write Lawless and Fox, “demonstrate the powerful impact women’s organizations can exert on closing the gender gap in political ambition. Not only have these organizations made their presence felt in a relatively short period of time, but they also helped narrow the gender differences in political recruitment since 2001.”
Columnist Katha Pollitt charged Lawless and Fox with “blaming” women for lacking political ambition rather than attributing women’s underrepresentation to “the stalled and stymied situation of women generally,” but Lawless and Fox aren’t denying that female candidates encounter stereotyping and sexism.
Clinton, of course, was already a household name from her days as a high-profile first lady and later as the junior senator from a politically powerful state. But voters presented with less-well-known candidates are apt to make assumptions about their policy positions based solely on sex. “When voters know less about a candidate,” Fox told Miller-McCune.com, “they stereotype more. Women are stereotyped as more liberal.” And although Fox is not persuaded that Clinton’s loss was caused by sexism, he acknowledged that the media were tough on the senator (“brutal” is how he characterizes the treatment of Clinton by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell). “She was held to a much higher standard, and that can only be because she was a woman,” Fox said.
Indeed, while the study is not exactly a feminist analysis, the authors are hardly silent on the subject of gender disparities, noting that the married women in the sample were significantly more likely to assume major responsibility for housework and child care than their married male counterparts. “For many women in the pool of eligible candidates,” Lawless and Fox point out, “entering the electoral arena would simply be a third job, which is quite unappealing since they already have two.”
In terms of experience in the type of tasks associated with running for and holding public office, the women in the survey group were as qualified overall as the men in the sample — with comparable experience conducting policy research and speaking in public, and even outpacing men in their experience organizing events and fundraising. Women, however, were twice as likely as men to rate themselves “not at all qualified” to run for public office.
According to Fox, this self-perception can be overcome with education: He noted that a program in Minnesota that arranged field trips for potential female officeholders to sessions of the state Legislature increased the women’s confidence that they could be effective legislators. (Fox told Miller-McCune.com the participants’ reaction to their statehouse visit was something along the lines of the old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?”)
Fox asserted that in a parliamentary system, in which political parties exert greater control, there’s a greater chance of fielding large numbers of female candidates, because a party can simply make a decision to do so and then support its slate. In this country, Fox told Miller-McCune.com, there’s been “no concerted effort by either party” to increase the number of female candidates; any initiatives that have occurred have been “episodic and dependent largely on who’s in charge.”
Under the U.S. system, he said, individual candidates have to function more like entrepreneurs — setting up a campaign office, raising money, etc. Entrepreneurship, of course, is another role traditionally ascribed to men; according to Small Business Administration figures, women-owned firms accounted for 28 percent of nonfarm U.S. companies, although research indicates that the number of firms owned by women is growing at a faster rate than private businesses as a whole.
The underrepresentation of women is not simply a gender equity issue. Noting that more survey respondents of both sexes lost interest in running for office between 2001 and the follow-up survey in 2008 and that at least a third of state legislative seats are uncontested, Fox declared, “Democracy isn’t thriving.”As long as family roles and social norms remain unchanged, he said, “There may be a ceiling to how many women run for office.” But the numbers, according to the research, can be increased even before any sweeping social change takes place.
For one thing, organizations wanting to increase women’s presence in the halls of elected power need to “(spread) the word about women’s electoral success and fundraising prowess,” Lawless and Fox write. Otherwise, “If women think the system is biased against them, the empirical reality of a playing field on which women can succeed is almost meaningless.” Just as importantly, Fox told Miller-McCune.com, “Repeatedly recruiting and encouraging women to run increases their ambition.”
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Sexism in Action? The Women’s Media Center collects remarks regarding Hillary Clinton from cable talk shows.
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