More women are signing up to run for office, but will they succeed?
Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.
By Kelly Wallace
When I saw the news recently that Britain elected a record number of women to Parliament — more than ever before — to make up a bit more than 30% of the legislative body, I took to Twitter to cheer.
But then, I asked, “What will it take for this to happen in the US?”
Sadly, we haven’t seen dramatic change over the past 20 years when it comes to women in elected posts. If you follow the issue, you know the numbers by now: Women, while composing more than 50% of the population, make up just 19.4% of the House of Representatives and just 21% of the Senate, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress.
Beyond Washington, the news isn’t much better: Women hold fewer than 25% of state legislative positions, 10% of governorships and 19% of mayoral posts in all cities with more than 30,000 residents, the Center for American Progress reports.
There are reasons to be somewhat optimistic that those numbers, especially on the local level, could start to change, as thousands of women have stepped up saying they plan to run following the election of President Donald Trump.
Emily’s List, which backs Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights, says that since Election Day, it has heard from almost 15,000 women looking to run for office, according to a spokeswoman.
Emerge America, which also recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office, says it has trained more than 1,000 women since November.
The Center for American Women and Politics, which is nonpartisan, had 270 women attend its “Ready to Run” workshop for potential candidates this year, compared with about 175 women who typically attend, said Jean Sinzdak, the group’s associate director. Of the 270 women, 140 said they were Democrats, 70 said they were Republicans, a handful said they were with a third party. The remainder did not declare a party connection, she said.
And IGNITE, which is also nonpartisan and focuses on younger women, starting as young as high school and urging them to run in their school elections, has seen tremendous interest, which isn’t easing up, according to Anne Moses, the group’s founder and president.
Since February, Moses says, it has had inquiries from 500 women across the country who want to start college chapters and a similar number of educators who want to bring IGNITE programming into their schools. The group has had to find new venues for its young women’s political conferences, which are held across the country, because they are selling out and more women want to attend, she said.
“Every single one of those is closed to capacity a month before,” Moses said. “It’s across the board everywhere. Everywhere we go, we’re selling out of everything (and) getting shut down for space.”
The interest and activism was sparked in a big way by what many women say was the sexism and misogyny they witnessed during the presidential campaign. There is no question there is more energy and momentum on the part of women considering tossing their hat into the ring, but will that translate into more women actually running for office and more of them winning?
‘Political qualifications are no longer a thing’
Moses says it’s up to her and other women’s organizations and networks to get all these women to run but concedes that she’s not sure how many will actually do it.
She tells the story of a conversation she recently had with a woman who seems like a perfect candidate: She’s a high-level executive doing significant work for her community, a married mother motivated by the issues and someone really interested in running.
And yet, when Moses started to talk to her about 2018, she could see her hesitation. “Oh, I’m not ready,” she told Moses. “You can see, wow, it’s still going to be really hard to get these women to do it.”
Historically, there has been what scholars call an “ambition gap” when it comes to men and women and their desires for political office. If you polled college students, you tended to hear less ambition on the part of women versus men to run for elected office, said Judith Warner, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of the organization’s new report, “Opening the Gates: Clearing the Way for More Women to Hold Political Office.”
But that isn’t likely to hold up with younger women, especially after they watched Hillary Clinton come very close to becoming the first female president of the United States, she said.
“I think (the fact) that a generation of girls and young women have seen a female presidential candidate means that it’s going to become normal for them,” said Warner, who is a also a contributing writer to the New York Times magazine and author of “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety.” “It’s not going to be this kind of freak occurrence, and that’s a great thing. When something is normalized, then younger people can aspire to it.”
How much sexism played a role in Clinton’s defeat remains an open question, but the research shows that for congressional elections, it isn’t an obstacle to women running and winning and, therefore, should not necessarily be holding women back, Warner said.
“The research now looking at voter opinion and also looking at media coverage for women who are running for Congress really shows that they do not suffer from a disproportionate amount of bias,” she said. “Even if things are still said and comments are still made and they absolutely are, when push comes to shove, it doesn’t play out at the ballot box.”
Marianne Schnall is author of the highly regarded “What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership & Power,” which includes interviews with newsmakers including Gloria Steinem, Sheryl Sandberg and Nancy Pelosi. (Last year, Beyonce said it was the one book she thought all her fans should read.)
“When I did interviews for the book, what was talked about a lot in holding women back is that women often question whether they are qualified enough or expert enough, do they know enough about foreign policy or all the issues to run for office, and it holds them back,” said Schnall, who has started a nonpartisan digital platform, What Will It Take, that aims to inform, connect and engage with women on all areas of leadership.
She says that regardless of one’s politics, it is fair to say that Trump was a candidate who never had a career in government and has little experience on the range of domestic and foreign policy issues he faces. His success can send a message to women that “if you just want to do this, you’re more than ready and able,” Schnall said.
Moses, of IGNITE, agrees. Women tend to hold themselves to a higher standard in terms of qualifications but may think about things differently after Trump’s victory.
“Whether or not you like him, people chose him because they wanted someone who was coming from outside the political sphere,” she said. “Clearly, political qualifications are no longer a thing, and so I think that’s been liberating. … I think women are going to stop holding themselves to such a high standard.”
The power of incumbency
If more women conquer those internal barriers and decide to run for office, what are the chances they’ll be successful?
Warner, in her recent report, found that one of the biggest obstacles women continue to face is a “gatekeeper system that helps insiders and limits ballot access.”
These institutional gatekeepers are basically people in the political party apparatus, incumbents and businesspeople, she said. They are the people who decide, “Who are we going to back to run for office?” she said.
They are the “kingmakers,” Warner said. “They designate who is going to be a good candidate, who is a viable candidate, who are they going to put money into, and then those people then … run for office and win, and those people are very rarely women.”
Moses says the system favors incumbents, and incumbents are usually men. “It’s always easier to win an open seat than it is to take out an incumbent … and so there is an inherent disadvantage in the system in that regard.”
She said that based on the power of incumbency, the lack of term limits in the House of Representatives and the Senate and the gerrymandering of congressional seats to favor one political party or the other, it will take a “long, long, time” to see women in greater numbers at the national level.
One way to speed change is to follow the leads of Britain and other European countries, which set gender targets for each political party, she said.
“In Europe, when the European countries jump up (in female elected officials), it’s because of quotas,” Moses said. “Americans don’t like to talk about quotas. They think there’s got to be a different way to talk about it, but let’s call a spade a spade. That’s what’s going to get us there.”
When Schnall’s book was published in 2013, the United States ranked 79th in the world when it came to women in national legislatures, she wrote on CNN.com for International Women’s Day. The situation has actually worsened in 2017, with the US falling to 104th in the world, which she calls “shocking.”
She hopes her platform will connect women to all the groups that exist to help any woman who is considering running for elected office. Women may not realize there are so many tools and resources out there to support them, she said.
“This is part of why I launched the What Will It Take movement platform is because I wanted to offer a one-stop central hub of all these wonderful groups and programs and trainings that are just out there, ready to train women and give them the network and support that they need to be successful,” Schnall said.
Going local, starting young
As a mother of two teenage girls, one of whom is active in politics at college, Schnall believes that a key way to get more women to run and win is to start early on, when they are girls, reversing some of the messages they’re receiving about their place in the world.
“This starts very early on in girlhood, where actually sometimes being seen as powerful, as a leader, is discouraged, or this pressure on women and girls to fit in and please and be liked and not take up too much space,” she said. “One of the things we really need to do is just that first step of encouraging women and girls to see themselves as leaders in the first place.”
Moses believes that getting to girls early is really the “most promising intervention point.” Getting to them as they are thinking about their careers is much easier than persuading a 45-year-old woman with two kids and a career to give up her job and run for office or, if it’s a part-time low-paying legislative position, try to take on that post along with doing her job and taking care of her family.
“With young women, what we’re having great success with is, we can actually get them into the next step very, very easily, which is, ‘OK, you’re going to graduate college or grad school. You need to get a staffer job, because guess what? When your legislator moves on, you’re more apt to be tapped.’ ”
One young woman in Boston, a freshman at Harvard who recently hooked up with IGNITE, will be running for Cambridge City Council in November, she said. Another young woman in Oakland who started with IGNITE when she was in college is now running for Oakland City Council.
Women should know that they “do not need to wait,” she said. There are 520,000 elected offices in the United States, 99.9% of them at the local level, she said.
“You do not need to be a 45-year-old attorney with a big long career to run for them,” Moses said. “Most local offices are part-time, low-compensation; you have to have another job. It’s in some ways tailor-made for young women.”
Local office may not seem as “sexy,” she said, but it is a key way to get more women in state and federal elected positions. “You’ve got to get people in the pipeline so they can move up the pipeline. People move from local office to state office. They move from state office to federal office. That’s how guys did it, and that’s how the change is going to happen.”
Through her platform, Schnall also hopes to showcase more women sharing positive stories of making a difference in elected office. Even at a time of unprecedented activism, politics can look like a “really dysfunctional place,” she said.
What also will help get more women in office is making the case for why we need women, she said. “In my interviews, many people spoke to this fact that women … tend to be consensus builders and have very different ways of communicating that could be helpful especially in the partisan atmosphere that we’re in now.
“I actually have never been more positive,” she said. “There are women and girls who never really had thought too much or connected too much with the fact that there was this lack of parity or that there was sexism in the culture … but there’s new energy out there.”