Politicking While Female: The Political Lives of Women, a new collection of essays edited by Nichole M. Bauer, seeks to answer questions about why women have historically faced many more obstacles to obtaining positions in political offices than men. Here, Bauer talks about what is the same, what has changed, and what women in politics have to look forward to in coming elections.
One hundred years ago, with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, women won the right to vote in all elections in the United States. One hundred and four years ago, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman to hold a seat in the US Congress. Over the last century, that one US congressional seat held by a woman grew to 127 seats combined in the US House and Senate. These gains seem impressive, but women still make up just under 24 percent of the national legislature. This number is strikingly low considering that women are a majority of the US population as well as a majority of the nation’s voters. Even more striking is the fact that the number of men holding US congressional seats in the current legislative term is greater than the total number of women who have ever served in the US House and US Senate, going all the way back to Jeannette Rankin.
The good news is that the 2020 cycle could see dramatic changes in women’s representation. The 2018 “pink wave” midterm elections included record high numbers of women running for office, with good results for women’s representation. And the number of women running for Congress in 2020 outpaces the record set in 2018. In 2020, there are 327 women running in the general election for a US House or Senate seat. What will it take to see these women cross the electoral finish line?
The path women take to political office is filled with gendered pitfalls. Women must overcome gendered socialization barriers that discourage teaching leadership skills to young girls. Once a woman decides to pursue political office, she must overcome institutional gatekeepers conditioned to think of men as ideal political candidates, as well as fundraising challenges and the struggle to balance family demands with running for political office. Even after a woman gets her name on the ballot, she still has to persuade voters that she is the better choice than an opponent who is—more often than not—a man. All of these gendered barriers present difficulties for women aspiring to a political office.
Although women are generally at a disadvantage when they run for political office, the 2020 election cycle offers women some gendered advantages. The public health crisis spurred by the novel coronavirus may lead voters to be more supportive of women candidates since public health fits into women’s stereotypic issue strengths. And the news media report anecdotal evidence that women leaders around the globe are excelling at handling the COVID-19 crisis. Some voters may just want to see a more compassionate and caring leadership style, and these are traits that fit into women’s acknowledged strengths. Times of political scandals, corruption, and intense political conflict also present opportunities for the success of women at the polls. Female stereotypes include qualities of being more honest, open, and ethical. Women offer viable options for voters wanting a change from “politics as usual.” We can attribute the success of women in the 2018 pink wave in part to the desire to enhance women’s voices in the wake of the #MeToo scandals that saw high-powered men, including men in politics, called to account for their mistreatment and abuse of women. With these conditions converging in 2020, women running for US House and Senate seats, as well as gubernatorial, state, and local offices, have a unique opportunity to forge a path of success.
Improving women’s representation is not easy. Indeed, the political system has many built-in advantages for male leadership. The entire conception of what it means to be a leader is one that matches our stereotypic ideas of masculinity. But enhancing women’s representation is critical to preserving American democracy. Political institutions that do not include women will, inevitably, fail to represent the interests of women and other marginalized groups. The success of more women in both major political parties can create a more legitimate, responsive, and representative democracy—an outcome that benefits all Americans.
Nichole M. Bauer is assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University. She edited Politicking While Female: The Political Lives of Women, available from LSU Press. She is also the author of The Qualifications Gap: Why Women Must Be Better Than Men to Win Political Office.
Politicking While Female traces the challenges and opportunities that shape the experiences of women who pursue and hold positions of political leadership in the United States. In this volume, Nichole M. Bauer gathers new essays studying the forces that keep women out of political institutions, along with the hurdles faced by female candidates and politicians once they overcome those barriers.