Gender, Political Ambition, and the Initial Decision to Run for Office

Since the early 1980s, U.S. gender politics scholars have produced an impressive and expanding body of work that attempts to explore the role gender plays in the electoral system. Much of this work has been motivated by the underlying premise that a government dominated by male elected officials is biased against the election of women and, accordingly, does not fairly represent the public, particularly the interests of women. This notion has been supported by research that finds that the representation of women’s interests requires a greater inclusion of women leaders in public office (see Swers 2002; Dodson 1998; Rosenthal 1998; Thomas 1994). Surprisingly, though, much of the recent research that examines the performance of women candidates finds no evidence of bias against them. More specifically, in terms of fundraising and vote totals, often considered the two most important indicators of electoral success, investigators find that women fare just as well, if not better, than their male counterparts (Smith and Fox 2001; Burrell 1998, 1994; Cook 1998; Dolan 1998; Thompson and Steckenrider 1997; Darcy, Welch and Clark 1994; Leeper 1991). In fact, Seltzer, Newman and Leighton (1997, 79), in a study of voting patterns, have gone as far as to state emphatically: “A candidate’s sex does not affect his or her chances of winning an election . . . Winning elections has nothing to do with the sex of the candidate” (emphasis added).2

Despite what appears to be a neutral and unbiased electoral system, a glance at the top elective offices in the United States reveals a deep gender disparity: 86% of U.S. Senators, 86% of the members of the House of Representatives, 88% of state governors, 88% of big city mayors, and 78% of state legislators are male (CAWP 2003). Investigators tend to offer three basic explanations for these enormous disparities. Foremost, scholars point to the incumbency advantage. Research certainly supports the notion that incumbency makes the inclusion of previously excluded groups a slow, difficult task (Jacobson 2002; Carroll and Jenkins 2001; Burrell 1994; Darcy, Welch, and Clark 1994). Other researchers point to the eligibility pool as the most important explanation for the small number of women candidates and elected officials (Duerst-Lahti 1998; Darcy, Welch and Clark 1994). As Clark (1994, 106) explains, “Women are not found in the professions from which politicians inordinately are chosen – the law and other broker-type businesses. Therefore, they do not achieve the higher socioeconomic status that forms the eligibility pool for elective office.” According to this explanation, as women’s presence in the fields of law and business increases, so, too, will their economic status and their likelihood of seeking elected positions (see Thomas 1998; Williams 1990; Simon and Landis 1989). Finally, a few investigators posit that gender inequity in the candidate recruitment process hinders the selection of women candidates (Sanbonmatsu 2000; Niven 1998). Common to each of the three explanations is the exhortation that gender parity will occur only if more women simply make the decision to run for office (e.g. Seltzer, Newman and Leighton 1997; Burrell 1994; Chaney and Sinclair 1994).

Research that examines barriers to the inclusion of women as candidates for office provides some answer to the question of why deep gender disparities in office holding persist. But with the exception of one poll conducted in 1994 by the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC), and one single state study (Fox, Lawless and Feeley 2001), no research specifically examines the manner in which men and women initially consider seeking public office. Are professionally accomplished women and men equally likely to consider a run for elective office? Are differences in political ambition between men and women generational? Does the support network or encouragement to run for office influence men and women differently? Does traditional sex-role socialization play a role in how women and men think about seeking public office? Do vestiges of traditional socialization continue to inhibit some women from thinking they should seek elective office? If we are to understand women’s prospects for fuller representation in high-level office holding, then we must first determine whether well-situated women have the same desire as similarly situated men to serve in such positions.

From Gender, Political Ambition, and the Initial Decision to Run for Office by Richard L. Fox, Department of Political Science, Union College, Schenectady, NY 12308

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