Well before we fully assess the significance of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy for the future of women in politics, John McCain’s selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his vice presidential running mate raises a host of new questions about women and politics. Neither of these candidates is a typical female politician, yet they are (or, in Palin’s case, will be) two of the most high-profile women in electoral politics to date.
Clearly, women in the electorate and women serving in elected office are not monolithic in their viewpoints or life experiences, and to assume that they are is inaccurate and insulting.
Palin, however, is atypical of female candidates in some important and potentially consequential ways. Whether her candidacy will open the door for future female candidates by encouraging more women to run or by bolstering women’s leadership in the minds of voters, or be a step backward for other female politicians because McCain’s selection seems tokenistic or Palin makes major missteps, remains to be seen.
Is Palin prepared?
As the mayor of a very small town catapulted to governor less than two years ago, Palin has strikingly little experience in public office – so little, in fact, that it is not clear whether most voters will conclude she is prepared to serve as vice president in January, 2009.
My research, however, shows that most female candidates who run for Congress actually have more experience in public office before they run for Congress than their male counterparts. For a host of reasons, including gender stereotypes that suggest that women are less likely to be viewed as strong leaders, most female politicians accrue more experience before running than men. Indeed, Clinton made experience the theme of her campaign, which proved to be a less compelling message than Barack Obama’s mantra of change. Palin’s candidacy may reinforce the inaccurate stereotype that women are less prepared to serve than men are.
Palin’s conservative positions on social issues, guns and environmental protection are also atypical of female politicians. The gender gap in the electorate – with women more likely to vote Democratic – is even more pronounced among women in office. In Congress, Democratic women outnumber Republican women by a 2 to 1 margin.
Stereotypes suggest that women of both parties are more liberal than men. Voting patterns in the U.S. House support this stereotype, although in recent years, House GOP congresswomen have closed the gap with their male colleagues. Democratic congresswomen remain more liberal than Democratic congressmen, and more likely to sponsor bills to expand the social safety net and protect abortion rights.
‘Swing voter’ views
The Republican base seems energized by Palin’s conservative policy positions, but whether “swing voters,” who tend to be much less engaged in politics, know her positions or instead make inaccurate assumptions about Palin based on gender stereotypes remains to be seen.
Female politicians with small children are relatively rare. While most congresswomen are mothers, only around 10 have young children. Palin’s candidacy will highlight the challenges and possibilities of campaigning for a high level of office with small children, potentially making it easier for other women with young children in politics and other professional domains.
Many women have expressed concern about Palin’s candidacy, and for good reason. A “historic candidacy” that focuses on Palin’s lack of experience would hardly help women in the future. On the other hand, women are more likely to be viewed as “outsiders” and better able to clean up politics. This was not the case with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, but Palin’s record of reform will substantiate such a view.
Political science research shows that women are less likely than men to be recruited by party leaders to run for all levels of office. McCain’s selection of Palin, along with Mondale’s selection of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, are important exceptions. With Palin, the question remains, to what end?