Recruitment of Women Candidates

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Author: Barbara Burrell
Editors: Dianne G. Bystrom and Barbara Burrell
Date: 2019
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Recruitment of Women Candidates

Running for and getting elected to public office is the ultimate political activity in democratic societies. In the United States, since the first Congress convened in 1789 through the swearing in of members to the 115th Congress in 2017, women have comprised 2.6 percent (320) of the 12,247 individuals who have served in its national legislature. In contemporary times, when women run, they are as likely to win elective office as men are. However, women continue to be much less likely to run for elective office than men.

Many factors have been considered in research efforts to understand the low levels of women seeking elected office in the United States. Theories include such factors as women were less likely to have the background credentials to run for elective office. Women were perceived to be less ambitious than men. Women are less likely to seek elective office when they have children at home. Women’s disproportionate responsibility for raising their children in particular has Page 432  |  Top of Articleaccounted for delays in their undertaking candidacies, especially for elected positions that would take them away from their community. Women are perceived to have less access to the financial assets necessary to run a major campaign. Further, it has been argued, party leaders do not recruit women as candidates in winnable races. These factors have all been put forth as accounting for women’s lesser presence as political candidates than men.

Studies of political careers center on ambition. According to political ambition theory, longstanding interest in public life precedes running for and holding elected office. The decision to enter a given electoral contest is understood as an individual, rational calculus in which a politician assesses the relative costs and benefits of running for a given office and the probability of winning. Studies of political ambition have centered on nascent political ambition, which is the interest in first becoming a political candidate, and progressive ambition, which is the decision to seek higher office, often risking or giving up one’s current elected office. But how does one form a political ambitious persona? Do women acquire nascent political ambition and progressive ambition similarly to men? Do the same factors affect both nascent and progressive political ambition among women and men?

Women as a group have tended to be less politically ambitious than men. Scholars have long noted this gender gap in political ambition. The notable studies of Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox in the first decade of the 21st century have found contemporary evidence in support of lesser ambition on the part of women. Their studies of well-educated, well-credentialed professional men and women found that women are less likely than men to consider running for public office, are less likely to run for office, and are less likely than men to express interest in running for office in the future (2010). They are also less likely to respond that someone has asked them to run. They are less likely to be recruited as candidates. The process of candidate recruitment in which potential candidates are approached and encouraged to run can create candidates from individuals who had never before thought of running for office.

Studies of the subset of women who have actually run for and been elected to public office offer two divergent takes on the role of political ambition in their careers. At the national level of officeholding, political scientist Irwin Gertzog has described contemporary female members of Congress as being ambitious, experienced, rational, and skillful. They tend to be similar to men in their electability and in their campaign strategies and techniques. As strategic candidates, they carefully consider the chances of their securing their party’s nomination. Their entry into a race is based on the likelihood of success. “They calculate how victory or defeat will affect their careers, and more often than not, they wait for an incumbent to retire or otherwise leave an office before seeking the office. Political decisions, particularly those about whether to run and which office to seek, are made dispassionately, only after the advantages and drawbacks of each course of action are subject to rational calculation” ( Gertzog 2002 , 103).

At state and local levels, however, research suggests that women make the decision to run differently from their male counterparts. They use a different cost-benefit calculus to determine whether it is worth the risk. The research of Susan Page 433  |  Top of Article Carroll and Kira Sanbonmatsu (2013) suggests that instead of pure ambition driving the decision to enter a race, women’s candidacies are initiated more through the recruitment and encouragement of others than men’s decisions in the context of a specific political opportunity even in the absence of prior ambition, what they call a “relationally embedded process” (61). Candidacy may be equally or even more dependent on the consequences of that candidacy for others than on the personal costs and benefits to the candidate. A majority of the female state legislators they surveyed responded that they had never thought seriously about running until someone else suggested it. The encouragement of other people plays a greater role in the decisions of women than men at this level.

Based on his interviews with male and female governors, Jason Windett (2014) also suggests that women will often become motivated to run for elective office for different reasons than their male counterparts. They will generally become involved in a form of political participation other than seeking office prior to running for their first elected position. For many female potential candidates, this type of political participation will often take the form of lobbying or promoting specific causes. Women will become active in political movements, which will eventually give them confidence or allow them to interact with individuals who influence them to later run for office. In addition, women who have been active on the campaigns of others develop ambition to run for office themselves at higher rates than women who do not have campaign experience.

Contemporary groups engage in a multitude of other efforts to encourage women to see themselves as political leaders and potential political leaders and to provide them with the skills to be effective campaigners for elected office and effective officeholders. These efforts have become a central focus of existing women’s rights groups. Comparative politics researchers Pippa Norris and Mona Krook call this movement “capacity building” (2011).

Capacity-building programs have been a popular strategy among advocates of increased female political leadership in the United States, especially since such institutional changes as the adoption of quota systems or movement to a proportional representation system, parts of Norris and Krook’s six-step plan, are unlikely even to be considered let alone adopted in the United States. Capacity building programs in the United States have focused on girls and young women, as well as women old enough to run for office and even older women. They have been organized at the state and national levels. They are both partisan and nonpartisan in nature with a variety of such colorful names as Running Start, Emerge America, and Elect Her. A significant diversity of such women’s groups engaged in the political process as the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the National Federation of Republican Women, as well as EMILY’s List and various university programs, have undertaken efforts to build the capacity of women running for elected office and to improve their confidence and effectiveness. The Girl Scouts even developed a Ms. President Patch Program in cooperation with the former White House Project. This program has been a participation project as opposed to the traditional badges Girl Scouts work to earn. Girls had to participate in at least one project centered on learning about women in leadership positions historically, get involved in a school election campaign, Page 434  |  Top of Articlelook for female leaders in their community, and write about and follow them to obtain a Ms. President patch.

The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) provides an interactive Web site listing all the campaign and leadership trainings aimed specifically at potential female candidates and future female political leaders. In 2018, it listed 13 such national programs; 8 were nonpartisan, 3 were Democratic Party–affiliated groups, and 2 were Republican groups. The Web site also lists the various state-run campaign training and leadership development programs for women.

CAWP itself engages in capacity building with its Ready to Run: Campaign Training for Women program. Founded in 1998 as Ready to Run New Jersey, the program began adding partners in 2007. In 2018, the national Ready to Run network was comprised of 22 programs in 21 states. Ready to Run is a bipartisan program for women who want to run for office, work on campaigns, get appointed to office, become community leaders, or learn more about the political system. The flagship Ready to Run New Jersey program has trained more than 4,000 women to run for office, seek appointed positions, and manage campaigns since its founding in 1998. Following the 2016 election, the 2017 Ready to Run programs across the country experienced dramatic increases in attending. For example, Ready to Run Iowa drew 172 participants, more than double its previous highest attendance of 71 in 2015.

EMILY’s List launched the Political Opportunity Program after the 2000 election to recruit and train pro-choice Democratic women to run for local and state office. After the 2016 election, EMILY’s List launched Run to Win, a series of half-day candidate trainings across the United States for women who were thinking about running for political office. According to its Web site, EMILY’s List has trained nearly 10,000 women and helped elect 116 to the U.S. House of Representatives, 23 to the U.S. Senate, 12 governors, and more than 800 women to state and local office.

In July 2007, the Women’s Campaign Forum launched the Ask a Woman to Run campaign. By September 2008, more than 100,000 women had been nominated to run by having their names submitted to an online database constructed by the Women’s Campaign Forum. The Ask a Woman to Run tool is now part of She Should Run, a nonpartisan 501(c)3 founded in 2011 to provide an “approachable starting place and network for women leaders considering a future run for office and for those who support them.” The organization also offers the She Should Run Incubator, an online resource to help more women envision themselves in public leadership. According to its Web site, more than 15,000 women have been inspired to run for office through She Should Run since the 2016 election.

A variety of capacity-building programs provide young women with political leadership skills. The Elect Her: Campus Women Win program is one such example. The program was started as a collaborative effort between the AAUW and Running Start in 2010 to encourage and train college women to run for student government and future political office. In November 2016, Running Start took sole ownership of the program. The daylong Elect Her training teaches college women why more women are needed in student government and provides them Page 435  |  Top of Articlewith the skills to run effective campaigns. Students learn how to create campaign messages and communicate them effectively, as well as how to reach out and mobilize voters on campus. According to the Running Start Web site, 90 percent of the 2016 Elect Her participants who reported running for student office won their campaigns.

Barbara Burrell

Further Reading

Burrell, Barbara. 2014. Gender in Campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Carroll, Susan J., and Kira Sanbonmatsu. 2013. More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislatures. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gertzog, Irwin. 2002. “Women’s Changing Pathways to the U.S. House Representatives: Widows, Elites, and Strategic Politicians.” In Women Transforming Congress, edited by Cindy Simon Rosenthal, 95–188. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Lawless, Jennifer, and Richard Fox. 2010. It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lawless, Jennifer, and Richard Fox. 2015. Girls Just Wanna Not Run: The Gender Gap in Young Americans’ Ambition. Washington, D.C.: American University School of Public Affairs.

Lawless, Jennifer, and Richard Fox. 2015. Running from Office: Why Young Americans are Turned Off to Politics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Norris, Pippa, and Mona Lena Krook. 2011. Gender Equality in Elected Office: A Six Step Plan. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Accessed April 8, 2018. .

Windett, Jason. 2014. “Differing Paths to the Top: Gender, Ambition, and Running for Governor.” Journal of Women, Politics and Policy 35(4): 287–314.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX7650000225