Women making history: When women run

This post is one of a series of posts in observance of Women’s History Month.

In a project for the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), Jody Newman created a massive database enabling her to look at the win rate for women running for governor, the state legislature, the House, and the Senate. In her 1994 monograph Perception and reality: A study comparing the success of men & women candidates for NWPC, she demonstrated conclusively that women win just as often as men at every level of politics, in primaries and in general elections, Democrats and Republicans. This pattern has continued. The problem, Newman said, was getting more women to run.

And why don’t more women run? Political scientists Jennifer Lawless at the University of Virginia and Richard Fox at George Washington University have done extensive research on the subject and drawn several conclusions. One reason for the smaller number of female candidates is that it is hard to dislodge incumbents and most major political offices are dominated by men. As the Brookings-AEI publication Vital Statistics on Congress has shown, more than 90 percent of incumbents seeking reelection win. Winning an open seat is much easier than defeating an incumbent. Lawless and Fox also concede that politics isn’t a very attractive pursuit for either sex, but equally qualified, experienced, and interested women are less likely to want to run than men. In a 2020 interview with University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson, Lawless said women in her research were “one-third less likely to even think about throwing their hats in the ring” and 50 percent less likely to do so. The “political ambition gap” extended to younger women in their survey, though there is some evidence, Lawless said, that high-school age women are more receptive.

US representation in higher offices compares unfavorably to representation in other prominent democracies, but in some of those, the parties that are feeders for high-level officeholders have quotas for female candidates. In some countries quotas as mandated by law. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance tracks the experience of countries around the world where quotas have been proposed and implemented.