As America’s first potential female president, Democrat Hillary Clinton could decisively shatter the last glass ceiling in American politics this fall. But as gratifying as that victory would be, women are still woefully underrepresented in public office.
Women make up at most a quarter of elected officials at all levels of office, including even the lowest rungs at the state and local level, according to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. Heading into the 2016 elections, women hold 20 out of 100 seats in the U.S. Senate, 84 out of 435 seats in the House, 6 governorships and 19 of the mayors’ offices in the nation’s 100 largest cities.
The shortage of female candidates and officeholders is especially acute for women of color. According to a 2015 report by Higher Heights, an organization that supports black women in politics, “only 35 Black women from 15 states have ever served in the U.S. Congress … and three states have still never elected a Black woman to their state legislature.”
The number of down-ballot candidates who might ride on Clinton’s coattails into office also includes far fewer women than might be expected. While the number of female Senate candidates hit a high this year – at 38 – the number of women running for Congress is lower than it was at its peak in 2012, according to CAWP. In 2016, 265 women filed to run for Congress, down from 298 four years ago.
“There’s still much work to be done,” says CAWP Director Debbie Walsh. “It’s not all fixed by nominating and electing a woman to president of the United States, as historic and significant as that could be.”
One thing that Clinton’s nomination hasn’t fixed, for example, are the biases of local party politics. Women are still less likely to enter the pipeline of candidates blessed by the state and local party bosses who act as gatekeepers to donor networks and other vital party resources. “By and large, the people who are doing the recruiting are men,” says Walsh. “I don’t think it’s maliciousness – people recruit whom they know, like and are comfortable with. Women just aren’t on their radar screen.”
In general, Democrats as a party have done a better job of prioritizing the recruitment of female candidates. Women are among the top Democratic recruits poised to challenge the GOP for majority control of the U.S. Senate this cycle. Women also make up about a third of the Democrats currently in Congress, as well as about a third of the Democrats in state legislatures, according to CAWP. By comparison, just 10% of the Republicans in Congress and 17% of the Republicans in state legislatures are women. And as the Washington Post has reported, women occupy almost none of the top GOP leadership positions.
In addition to these structural obstacles, another thing that hasn’t yet changed are the more subtle hurdles that stand in women’s way – including the attitudes and circumstances of women. For example, research finds, women are more reluctant than men to throw themselves into the ring. “Women are more likely than men to need to be asked to run,” says Walsh. “Men are more likely to wake up one morning, look in the mirror and say to themselves that they’ll be the best candidate their state has ever seen.” One study by CAWP found that a majority of women state representatives had been asked and encouraged to run for their first elective office, compared to less than a third of the men. In fact, 43% of male state representatives said it was “entirely my idea to run,” versus just 26% of women.
“I think unfortunately it’s a characteristic of women in general that we have the most self-doubt about our abilities,” says Kimberly Peeler-Allen, the founder of Higher Heights. “Men in many cases don’t know anything about anything except that they want to be elected, so they get out there and run.”
In a 2011 study of potential candidates for public office, American University’s Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox found that while 35% of men considered themselves to be “very qualified” to run for office, only 22% of women felt the same – despite similar experiences and resumes.
Women are also more likely to be the primary caregivers in their households – making a 24/7 campaign impractical and unappealing. As a result, when women do decide to run, they are more likely to do so later in life, after the challenges of balancing a demanding public life with the obligations of raising a family are behind them. According to CAWP’s research, women elected officials are less likely than men to have a child under 18 at home. The problem with waiting, says CAWP’s Walsh, is that women end up with less time to make her mark. “If a man starts running for the state legislature or local council in his late 20s or early 30s, his trajectory in politics is that much longer than a woman who makes her first run when she’s in her 50s,” Walsh says.
Could Clinton’s nomination and potential victory help change these trends?
On the one hand, the overwhelming brutality of this year’s election cycle could turn many women off politics forever. Clinton’s opponent is, after all, potentially the most egregiously misogynistic candidate in modern history. Donald Trump has famously – and proudly – called women “pigs” and “dogs.”
But Erin Cutraro, the founder and CEO of She Should Run, a nonprofit aimed at encouraging women to run for office, says she’s seen an enormous uptick of interest in the programs her organization offers to ready aspiring candidates. “What I’m seeing – especially in young women – is a call to step up and be a part of the solution,” she says. “I think that’s really encouraging in the midst of what’s a pretty toxic environment.”
One of the organization’s efforts, for example, is “Ask a Woman to Run,” which allows participants to nominate themselves or others for consideration as a candidate. “We’ve seen a jaw-dropping increase in the number of women who’ve raised their hands and said this may be something they’re interested in some point,” Cutraro says.
Cutraro also recently launched a partnership with Mattel to unveil “President and Vice President Barbie” dolls aimed at encouraging young girls to start thinking about careers in public office. “It’s really about us catching up to the expectations young girls already have,” she says. “They believe they can do it now, and we just need to work on the stems and structures to make that expectation a reality.”