August 9 2013

Backlash: Will more high-profile women in public office discourage others from following?

The Hill

Sabrina Schaeffer

Ten years from now when we look back at this period in political history, I suspect we might see a decline in the number of women running for public office — a theory I shared with Jake Miller of CBS yesterday for an article about women running for the White House in 2016. 

I realize this perspective might upset a lot of women’s organizations like She Should Run, EMILY’s List, VIEW PAC and others that are focused on growing the number of women running for higher office. But there are some very real reasons to be concerned.

While there is a lot of enthusiasm about encouraging a woman to run for the White House in 2016 and moving toward greater parity at all levels of government, I suspect the fallout from the 2008 and 2012 political campaigns may keep this from happening.

In 1994, Jody Newman of the National Women’s Political Caucus found that “when women run for office, they win as often as men do.” The problem was that women were not choosing to run. And for many years we have been trying to figure out why. 

Most Americans, of either gender, don’t choose to run for office, and for similar reasons: it’s expensive, hard on families and requires a very thick skin. But as I’ve written before, the research literature has found that more serious “election aversion may be a girl thing.” A variety of gender differences, including communication style, willingness to negotiate, risk aversion and competitive drive, may help explain the under-representation of women in public office. But more recent research out of the University of Pittsburgh has found that the “noisiness of the modern campaign” is the real culprit. 

Women often believe they’re qualified and want to have a real conversation about the issues, but the 24-hour news cycle, the attention spent on their appearance and their family, and the general disregard to policies keep them from throwing their hat in the ring. When women think they will be judged on their true values and qualifications, the election aversion falls by the wayside.

So while we’d like to think that Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann might help pave the way for other women, it’s quite possible it will do just the opposite. The at-times brutal experiences each of these candidates experienced could just reinforce the very real concerns women have about running for public office.


Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women’s Forum.

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