Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

Research and Resources on Women and US Politics (February 2017): Women and Political Ambition

By Melinda A. Mueller

Women and Political Ambition

Research consistently indicates that men and women differ in terms of their levels of political ambition. In her research on sex and political ambition, Susan Welch developed three hypotheses to explain why women were less likely than men to run for office. First, she focused on situational factors, where women are more likely to be caregivers in their families, which limits their ability to run. Second, Welch hypothesized that women are less likely than men to run for office due to structural factors, including access to law school, which is often a stepping stone to political careers. Third, Welch considered socialization factors, where women have been socialized not to participate in politics (Welch 1977). Welch’s research provides a framework for understanding the complexities of political ambition research today.

Current research finds that situational factors of women serving as caregivers to their families can play a role in shaping their decision to run for office. Interview research by Susan Carroll and Kira Sanbonmatsu confirmed that these variables still affect a woman’s decision to run. Women respondents reported that their family relationships, level of spousal support, and the age of their children were very important factors (Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013). On the other hand, a survey over 4,000 potential candidates for elected office did not find evidence that family demands prevented women from running. (Fox and Lawless 2014a). Thus, more research is needed to better understand these situational factors, especially as family systems and caregiving traditions have evolved over the past two decades.

Research on structural factors also reveals complex results. Researchers hypothesized that as the number of female business owners and lawyers increased, we would see more women running for office (Welch 1977; Darcy, Clark, and Welch 1994). However, while women are as likely as men to attend law school today, the number of women candidates hasn’t increased at the same pace. Indeed, Carroll and Sanbonmatsu focused on how women today are more likely than men to come from a greater variety of occupations and professions before pursuing state-level elected office. While men may traditionally pursue politics out of legal and business careers, women politicians come from a variety of careers, including law and business, but also education and health care (Carroll and Sanbonmatsu 2013).

Finally, socialization may play a role in explaining why women do not run for office as often as men. For instance, recent experimental research concludes that women are fundamentally more election-averse than men. Women are as likely as men to seek a candidacy when the office is chosen at random, but are less likely to run in an election. The authors concluded that this aversion is primarily due to women avoiding competition, rather than differences in candidate quality or resources (Kanthak and Woon 2015). In their survey research on political ambition, Lawless and Fox noted the important roles that parents play in encouraging sons, yet discouraging daughters, to run for office (Fox and Lawless 2014a; Lawless and Fox 2013; Fox and Lawless 2014b).

One important finding shaping research today is that women are more likely to run if they are asked to run, focusing on party recruitment (Fox and Lawless 2010; Fox and Lawless 2014b). Sanbonmatsu’s study of women’s representation in six state legislatures concluded that political party recruitment and organization played significant roles in shaping representation by women. Her work demonstrated that states with stronger party systems weakened women’s ability to run, since they tended to promote insular, smaller candidate networks (Sanbonmatsu 2006). Recent similar research emphasizes the importance of party leaders seeking candidates from below the county level, where more women are serving and active. Melody Crowder-Meyer’s survey of county party leaders demonstrated that party leaders who relied on smaller, insular networks for recruiting were less likely to consider women candidates. She found that Democratic county leaders were more likely to recruit from child-related and education organizations, which led to more female candidates. Finally, her research indicated that having female party leaders led to having more female candidates (Crowder-Meyer 2013).

Local level research is difficult due to data access and variations across local governments. Even so, many women run for local office. Van Assendelft found that, similar to Congressional and state-level offices, personal recruitment is important. Her survey results indicated that women serving at the local level do not possess high levels of progressive ambition. Women serving at the local level may prefer the local policy focus, or may be restricted by factors such as caregiving or age of entry into politics (Van Assendelft 2014). A study of women local party leaders demonstrated that women are active at the local level in both parties, as well as in both urban and rural communities. At the same time, women party leaders were more likely to serve in western states, and typically lead party committees with smaller budgets (Shea and Harris 2006). Adrienne Smith, Beth Reingold, and Michael Owen’s study of women’s representation in 239 large cities concluded that women were more likely to serve as either mayor or council member when there were more women in either of those roles, and that local women’s organizations were correlated with higher levels of women’s representation (Smith, Reingold, and Owens 2012). These results suggest that more research is needed on whether having some women in elected office has a multiplying effect, encouraging other women to run.

Besides recruitment, research today focuses on how men and women perceive their qualifications for running and their chances of winning. Survey research indicates that women perceive their electoral chances of winning to be lower than reality, resulting in fewer women deciding to run (Fox and Lawless 2011). Recent experimental findings concluded that many voters assume that women candidates are at a disadvantage to men, but that when they become informed of the relative parity between male and female candidates, they change their perceptions, indicating that information plays a role in encouraging more women to run (Dowling and Miller 2015).

Finally, current research focuses more on the intersections of race and ethnicity when examining sex and political ambition. An important finding is that minority women appear to be more politically ambitious than white women. Angela Frederick interviewed thirty-three women candidates in Texas, focusing on the factors that led them to run for office, and found that black and Latina women were more politically ambitious than white women (A. Frederick 2013). Research by R. Darcy and Charles Hadley found that the civil rights movement played an important role in socializing African American women about politics (Darcy and Hadley 1988). African American women demonstrate higher levels of political ambition compared to white women, even though they often lack financial and educational resources (Smooth 2014). While minority women remain underrepresented in elected offices, women candidates of color can benefit significantly from campaign training sponsored by women and minority organizations (Sanbonmatsu 2015). Similarly, a case study analysis of the National Association of Colored Women indicated similar findings, that women’s organizations can be particularly effective tools for encouraging future female candidates (Mathews-Gardner 2010).

Once women serve in office, it appears that their levels of political ambition are similar to men’s. In a study of women Congress members from 1916 through 2000, Barbara Palmer and Dennis Simon concluded that once women are elected to Congress, they generally exhibit the same ambition as men, either seeking static ambition to protect their current seat, or progressive ambition to move up to higher offices (Palmer and Simon 2003). Likewise, research on female gubernatorial candidates concluded that women candidates were more likely to take on electoral risks and exhibit progressive ambition than their male counterparts (Windett 2014). Ultimately, McDonagh argues that the low levels of women’s participation in elected office reflect the lack of attention the US gives to public policies associated with maternal traits. When we elevate these traits—such as child care, education, and women’s health—to the highest level of public dialogue, we may see an increase in the number of women candidates (McDonagh 2010).

Works Cited