Will 2018 Be Another ‘Year of the Woman’ in Politics?
By Shauna Shames | January 30, 2018
Twenty-six years ago, the media nicknamed 1992 the “Year of the Woman in Politics”, when a record number of women sought and won political seats in both houses of Congress. Lately there is talk that 2018 may be another such breakthrough year – and it would be sorely needed. Women constitute more than half of the U.S. population but hold fewer than 20% of elective political offices, a vast underrepresentation that is often exacerbated by racial disparities as well. These gaps have persisted stubbornly for the two-and-a-half decades since 1992 with only incremental changes, but the combination of Trump’s election in 2016 and the #MeToo movement of 2017 seems to be spurring a record number of women to run in 2018. Is there really another “Year of the Woman in Politics” in store?
Maybe. There are two key factors to consider when we think about whether women are willing to run for office: structural opportunities and political ambition. On the structural side, the vital thing about 1992 is that redistricting after the 1990 census produced an unprecedented number of open seats in the 1992 elections (seats with no sitting incumbents). Since Congressional incumbents win their electoral contests at rates around 90%, the best way to win election to Congress is through an open seat rather than trying to run against an incumbent. 1992 saw far more open seats than 2018 will – but the combination of Trump and the #MeToo movement has resulted in a far higher number of retirements from Congress than we usually see.
Moreover, we are seeing a wave of men accused of sexual harassment step down, which could be very good news for women. Parties, political recruiters, and local women’s organizations should make sure to recruit, train, and support women to contest these seats.
Then there is the question of political ambition, the term political scientists use to describe that critical will to run. Generally research has found that women have lower political ambition than men. (This is why recruitment, training, and encouragement is especially critical to getting more women to run.) My research takes a slightly different perspective; I find that few people strongly want to run, whether they are male or female (I call this idea “candidate deterrence”). The idea is that people who could be great political candidates are rationally deterred by the many obstacles in the path of those potentially interested in office-seeking. Everyone has their own perceptions of what these “costs” are, but there are some consensus points: nearly everyone I surveyed and interviewed hated the idea of having to raise money to run. Most people were deterred by the thought of media intrusion into their lives, especially if it would involve their family members. And so on.
As a nation, we have made running for office extremely costly – costlier than in any other advanced industrial democracy. (In most comparable countries, parties and governments shoulder much of the burden that in the U.S. is imposed on individual candidates and campaigns.)
For some people, these costs are bearable, because they also see high rewards from running for or serving in public office. They think, for example, that they could really help people, make positive changes in their communities, help to create good public policy on issues important to them, and more. But for most people, especially the young people I studied for my book, the perceived rewards were just not high enough to balance out all those high costs. I show that for those for whom the rewards were higher than the costs were highly politically ambitious. But they were a relatively small subset, maybe 15% at most of the extremely bright, elite law and public policy graduate students that formed my nearly 800-person research sample. For most of those in the sample, the rewards did not outweigh the perceived costs.
Candidate deterrence (the rational lack of political ambition) affects most people. But it turns out it affects women more than men.
In thinking about the costs and rewards of running, women saw greater costs than did men, and also saw lower rewards. And women of color, who were about a third of the women in my sample, stood out as the most-deterred subset. This all makes sense. Women as a group continue to face double standards among voters, media, donors, and party leaders, and encounter greater difficulties raising money when compared with men as a group. The nearly 30 women I spoke with in hour-long interviews were deeply aware of entrenched sexism and anticipated its negative effects, were they to toss their hats into any rings. Women of color were aware of both sexism and racism (one black female student at Harvard Law School told me, “This isn’t my first time on the merry-go-round”), and were pretty sure they would not be treated fairly as political candidates.
Perhaps most significantly, on the rewards side, women were significantly less likely than men to think that politics could solve important problems – and women of color (particularly black women) believed this even less than white women did. To those of us who care deeply about politics, policy, and good governance, this is a painful reality: although we would all benefit from having more gender and racial diversity in office, the costs often fall hard on the shoulders of individual women or people of color, who are understandably reluctant to step forward.
The combination of the high costs of running for office with high re-election rates of incumbents (who are usually white males) has thus far made it difficult to change the race and gender gaps in Congressional representation.
Still, it may just be possible that a large number of women could run and win this coming year. It will not be as big a “Year of the Woman” as 1992, because there won’t be as many open seats – but there is a wave of anger and resistance sweeping American women this year. The candidacy programs that train women to be candidates like Emerge, Emily’s List, She Should Run, Ready to Run, Vote Run Lead, Ignite, and others report record-breaking interest in their trainings. The seas of pink pussy hats filling public spaces for the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches attest to women’s determination to make their voices heard politically, and the 2018 March focused on women running for office as a major theme. Both major parties should think of this as a banner year for recruiting, supporting, training, and encouraging women to run. If ever there were the ingredients for overcoming the political ambition challenges for women, 2018 might be the time. Now if only more sitting Congressmen would retire and create yet more open seats.