Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Women’s role in U.S. politics explored in U of M event

A big finding of University of Virginia professor Jennifer Lawless’ work is that when women run for office they are just as likely as men to win their races. The offset is that they are so much less likely to run.

Because of the veep debate, I’m a day late writing about an excellent presentation on women in politics held Wednesday (over Zoom, of course) at the University of Minnesota by political scientist Jennifer Lawless, who chairs the Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. Lawless, who focuses on gender politics, was interviewed by U of M professor Kathryn Pearson, who writes and teaches on that topic but is also a scholar of Congress and elections.

The first big, and perhaps surprising finding of Lawless’ work is that when women run for office they are just as likely as men to win their races “once they are on the ballot.”

The offset is that they are so much less likely to run. But – and, of course, you’ve noticed this – there are more women in Congress than ever.

26 women in U.S. Senate

Currently, 26 women serve in the U.S. Senate, and 23 percent of U.S. House members are female, as are nine governors, Lawless said. In state legislatures, 29 percent of members nationally are women (and a slightly higher 32 percent in Minnesota).

Article continues after advertisement

Since women are a slight majority of the overall population, women are deeply underrepresented in all those categories (but not so the Minnesota U.S. Senate delegation, which consists of two women and no men).

Women: about a third less likely to run

Even when Lawless separates men and women into categories that take into account the kind of jobs, training, or pay they receive, women overall are about a third less likely to run for office.

Jennifer Lawless
Jennifer Lawless
Why? Lawless summarized her conclusion, based on follow-up interviews after her survey on the subject, that women believe “that they have to be twice as good to get half as far” in politics.

Is this changing as younger group of women enter adulthood in the age of feminism? Lawler answered with a flat “no.”

“The gender gap in interest in running was just as large among 18-year-olds as among 50- to 60-year-olds,“ she said, based on surveys she had conducted.

‘A gender gap in political ambition’

She calls this “a gender gap in political ambition.” Still, she said, “almost every recent cycle has led to an increase” in the number of women holding political office, an increase she described as “slow but steady.”

There is also a very powerful partisan gap, her research shows. Of the 583 women who filed to run for seats in the U.S. House this year, Democrats outnumbered Republicans by two to one. But the number of female candidates is growing on both sides. In fact it’s doubling (from a lower base) among Republicans.

But the partisan gap remains large. In the current U.S. House, 101 women serve, but only 13 of them are Republicans, Lawless said.

Article continues after advertisement

And female candidates are “running in all the right places to make a difference,” Lawless said, by which she meant that many of these women candidates are running for seats that are open (meaning no incumbent is running), since it is much harder to beat an incumbent than to win an open seat.

Pearson asked whether it’s the “toxicity” of campaigns that deters more women from running. Lawless said no. In surveys, 80 percent of men and 80 percent of women say the idea of running for office is incredibly off-putting. But, she surmised, men may be more likely to “suck it up a little more” and seek office, compared to women.

Why the partisan gap?

One reason for the partisan gap, Lawless said, might be the existence of groups like Emily’s List, which seeks pro-choice female Democrats and helps them fundraise. There was a similar group in the Republican side, she said, but pro-choice candidates don’t do well in Republican primaries and that organization has dwindled.

Kathryn Pearson
Kathryn Pearson
Pearson asked whether young women might be encouraged to run for office, or discouraged from political careers, by what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and the kind of negativity she faced from Donald Trump, plus Trump’s ultimate victory.

Lawless immediately noted that Clinton got more votes in 2016, suggesting that “the popular vote is ready for a woman president; the Electoral College system may not be.” She added that “we’re never going to see two candidates like them again.”

There were several serious women contenders for the Democratic nomination in 2020, but in the end the party chose Joe Biden. Pearson asked whether she thought gender played a role. Lawless replied with what was perhaps just a hunch that after seeing what happened in 2016, “perhaps Democratic voters didn’t want to see another female candidate go up against Donald Trump again.” There may have been an “underlying sense that it was going to take a man to beat him, because of the way Donald Trump plays the game,” adding that Elizabeth Warren in particular may have been undermined by a fear that voters “didn’t want this to be Hillary 2.0.”

But women in general are “more likely to vote and more likely to vote for a Democrat,” so if the Democratic ticket can build on that,  “Democrats are likely to do better.”

She also speculated that what she called Trump’s “tone deafness” on the COVID-19 pandemic will likely have a more powerful impact on women voters generally than on men. She also suggested that women put more importance on empathy, a quality in which Trump is “completely lacking,” and it’s a lack that has been very damaging to Trump’s candidacy, especially among women voters, Lawless said.

At the end of their conversation, Pearson offered Lawless a chance to use her insights to make predictions about the 2020 election.

Article continues after advertisement

Prediction: ‘A year of the women’

“It will be a year of the women on several levels,” she said. There will be a “surge” in the number of women elected to Congress, and she predicted that the United States will elect a woman as vice president for the first time ever, and that the election will be remembered as the one in which “female voters fought back.”

Then Lawless added wryly to the Zoomified audience: “But I should let your viewers know that I’m almost always wrong.”

If you’re interested, here’s a video of the whole Pearson-Lawless event.