It's never easy, amid the chaos and colliding variables of a campaign, to determine which factors really decide a close election. Politicians have their theories, though. As this year's primary season drew to a close, Hillary Clinton began blaming sexism for her campaign's troubles. But what of her Iraq War vote, infighting advisers, mouthy spouse, and decision to skip the caucus states? What of Obama? In an election this long and this tight, there are countless plausible explanations for Obama's narrow margin (a mere percentage point or two in the popular vote and a couple hundred delegates). In tallying sexism's electoral toll, Clinton's defeat is hardly the best example we can adduce.
We can do better. In January of 2008, Jennifer Lawless and Kathryn Pearson published an article in The Journal of Politics analyzing how female politicians fare in primary elections. Lawless and Pearson looked at every primary for the U.S. House of Representatives held between 1958 and 200 -- a staggering 19,221 primary contests involving 33,094 candidates. Just 2,648 women competed in those primaries, however -- a mere 8 percent of the total. This would make sense, hypothesized Lawless and Pearson, given the assumed bias of the electorate. If women are less likely to win primaries, they will also be less likely to enter them.
But the facts didn't fit the theory. "Contrary to our expectations," concluded Lawless and Pearson, "women's primary victory rates and vote margins are not significantly lower than those of their male counterparts." In other words, women win just as frequently as men. Indeed, in Democratic primaries since 1990, a woman won in 60 percent of districts where at least one competed.
The problem, it turns out, is less underperformance than underrepresentation. When women run, they perform at least as well as men. But they don't run nearly so often, and our country -- with its weak party system and aversion to quotas—does nothing to specifically redress the resulting disparity. This might be why the percentage of women in Congress puts us in 68th place worldwide, nestled right between Bolivia and El Salvador, and only a couple of spots beneath famously feminist Tajikistan.
For some time, many assumed that this imbalance would right itself naturally and that the distortion just reflected the power of incumbency. What was needed was not gender favoritism, they argued, but structural reforms that would lead to a more competitive political culture. Public financing was to pave the road, providing money to nontraditional candidates who might lack support from traditional party structures. But political scientists Timothy Werner and Kenneth Mayer, who examined the effects of public financing on candidate gender in the October 2007 issue of PS: Political Science and Politics, found that though women did avail themselves of public-funding options at a higher rate than men, this had no effect on "the overall composition of the candidate pool." Similarly, term limits, by ending the careers of (disproportionately male) longtime officeholders, were expected to increase women's political representation without explicitly favoring either gender. The problem is that term limits actually reduced the number of women in office, while states without such limits saw female representation rise. In some cases, the limits termed out women, and men replaced many of them. "The logic was impeccable," sighed political scientist Gary Moncrief. "The problem is there aren't as many women running as we expected."
The common failure of these reforms is that they focused on helping candidates who are already running, when the problem for women is that they don't enter primaries in the first place. To examine why, Jennifer Lawless partnered with political scientist Richard Fox to conduct the Citizen Political Ambition Study, which polled nearly 4,000 prominent lawyers, business leaders, executives, educators, and political activists on their attitudes toward electoral service. Lawless and Fox found that women were far less likely than men to evince interest in running for office. Women were much more likely than men to cite family obligations, negative feelings toward the process of campaigning, and a belief that they weren't qualified. But the most powerful finding was that the women surveyed were far less likely to be recruited to run for office.
In an entrepreneurial political culture like our own, an expression of institutional support or confidence can be a huge factor in whether a potential candidate decides to announce an actual candidacy. But the women Lawless and Fox surveyed were one-third less likely than the men to have ever been recruited by a party leader, elected official, or political activist. Yet when women do receive this encouragement, they are just as likely to respond positively as men. "Potential candidates who receive the suggestion to run for office are more than four times as likely as those who receive no such support to think seriously about a candidacy," writes Lawless.
When it comes to convincing women to run for office, it turns out that among the most powerful things we can do is simply ... ask.
Check out the rest of the articles in our package on women in politics:
Beyond Hillary: Strength in Numbers by Ann Friedman
Woman Versus Machine by Harold Meyerson
7 Democratic Women to Watch
Janet Napolitano and the New Third Way by Dana Goldstein