The political ambition gap

Article Highlights

  • In 1991, just 26% of Americans said they would want a daughter to choose politics as a life's work.

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  • In 2003, only 31% of Americans said they would want a daughter to choose politics as a life's work.

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  • The small gender gap in political ambition may be a permanent feature of our politics.

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In 1991, when the Gallup Organization asked people whether they would want a daughter to choose politics as a life’s work, just 26 percent said that they would.  When they repeated the question in 2013, the response had edged up barely to 31 percent.  According to a 2013 report by political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox, only 3 percent of 18-25 year old college women said they would be open to holding the presidency, 6 percent to being a member of Congress, and 9 percent a mayor. What’s holding women back? 

Not that long ago it was clearly discrimination. When the late political scientist Jeane Kirkpatrick surveyed women officeholders in the early 1970s for her path-breaking book Political Woman, there were no women in the Senate, no women serving as governor of a large state, no female mayors of major cities, and no women leaders of either party.  A significant number of Americans still frowned on women working in any occupation outside the home. Thirty-four percent of Americans told pollsters from the National Opinion Research Center that they disapproved of married women getting jobs if their husbands were capable of supporting them. A third nationally in another question from the time agreed that women should take care of running their homes and leave running the country up to men. Men and women’s responses were similar.

Kirkpatrick concluded that we would see the gradual inclusion of women in power positions and in politics, and she was right. There are 20 women in the Senate, five governors, and 79 female members of the House, and both parties have had women heads.  Researchers have concluded that gender bias no longer provides a significant impediment to electability. Today, women win in our politics just as often as men do at every level.  The problem is getting women to run, and it remains difficult. Both parties have had worked hard to recruit women candidates, and at this early point in the 2014 election cycle, the GOP is running behind the Democrats in the numbers. The Center for American Women and Politics (the organization that supported Kirkpatrick’s work) found that there are 165 Democratic Senate and House candidates still in the running compared to 101 GOP ones, as of May 6.

Women are making inroads in the all-male bastion of Congress, but for many feminists, the progress women have made has been too slow. There’s not much evidence, however, that Americans in general are deeply troubled by the dearth of women running for office.  Fifty-three percent of adults told ABC News/Fusion pollsters last fall that it would make no difference to them if more women were elected to Congress. A significant 43 percent said it would be a good thing, and women felt much more strongly about it than men. But other polls indicate that this just isn’t a top-tier or even a medium-tier concern for Americans preoccupied with a sluggish economy.  

We believe that the gap in political ambition arises because women just aren’t as interested in national politics as men and that they are making different choices.

Let’s face it. National level politics isn’t a very attractive proposition these days—for women or men. For candidates, fundraising is a drag, and being away from family for long periods isn’t something that appeals to a lot of people. That may be why, in the Lawless/Fox survey, young people felt that their mothers and fathers were not particularly encouraging about a political future for them, though young men sensed more encouragement than did young women.

For the population as a whole, a political career is not appealing either.  Americans have long associated politics with corruption. And most people don’t like the constant bickering. The Lawless/Fox survey that showed few young college women being open to being president or being a member of Congress also showed that young men weren’t very enthusiastic. Only 9 percent of college men were open to the presidency at some point in the future and 13 percent to being a member of Congress. In another question from their survey, 20 percent of young men, compared to 10 percent of young women, said that they had thought many times that they might run for political office, and  thirty-seven percent of young men and 27 percent of young women said it had crossed their minds.

What was particularly interesting from their survey was the fact that young college women and men were equally likely to grow up in households where politics was discussed. Fifty-four percent of young women, for example, said they followed the 2012 elections with their parents as did 48 percent of young men. 

The small gender gap in political ambition may be a permanent feature of our politics. We would like to see more women seek office, but we know that the granddaughters of feminism and their male counterparts are making their own choices in a world quite different from the one that faced Political Woman forty years ago.  

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Jennifer K.

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