Rebel Girls: It Turns Out, Voting For Women Isn’t Enough

I think it goes without saying that I love voting for women. Really, it runs deeper than that: I love watching women win, and watching them compete. Unfortunately, many of us — and especially those of us who reside in the United States — don’t get many chances to do so. And without some big changes we may never see a substantial increase in the number of women running for office, getting elected, and breaking more barriers in politics. (In fact, if things remain on the track they’re on right now, we might not see gender parity in politics for five hundred years.)

For those of us who believe in, say, equality and feminism and women’s rights, that’s dismal and depressing news. But the damage of gender imbalance in politics cuts even deeper than the surface of women’s empowerment. It has shaped — and continues to shape — political discourse and political outcomes in this country.

Research shows that electing women means an increase in progressive policy around environmental issues, macroeconomics, family rights and individual rights, violence, and incarceration, and that women politicians across party lines introduce more bills in the areas of civil rights and liberties, education, health, labor, and other key social justice issues. When women are elected to key national offices in ethnically diverse and divided nations, their economies perform better — and grow extensively.

If all this sounds unreal and impossibly good, it’s because we’ve had little experience watching these kinds of changes unfold. The United States is ranked 98th in the world when it comes to the percentage of women in its legislature, where women hold 102 of the 535 seats in the House and Senate. (That’s a depressing 19 percent of Congress representing over 50 percent of the population.) 24 states have ever had a woman governor, and only 5 states currently do. Less than 25 percent of the people who hold state legislative and statewide offices are women. Only 12 of 100 major cities in the country currently have a woman mayor. Though a handful of women have run for the nation’s two highest offices, only one has ever won a primary or caucus.

In the end, it is likely that most of us reading this piece — and its author — see voting for women candidates as novel, rare, and outside of the norm. And the reasons why are as varied as the potential solutions.

It goes without saying that women running for office in a patriarchal country and a sexist society are going to face a unique set of challenges in climbing to victory. Just the act of declaring candidacy is, after all, still quite transgressive for women in this country — and there’s a lot of backlash that comes with asking for a promotion in the most public way possible.

Hillary Clinton’s approval rating in 2013 was 69 percent. She was the second most popular Secretary of State since 1948. Her approval rating now, after her campaign launched? 40.8 percent. Sady Doyle recently explored this pattern, which has been mostly consistent throughout Clinton’s career: People love Hillary when she holds political offices, but despise her when she runs for them. Her experiences run parallel to the often-hailed Elizabeth Warren, who is lionized now but was seen as “unlikeable,” inauthentic, and robotic when she ran for Congress.

Those patterns also fit into the results of a Harvard study on backlash against women politicians. The 2010 research report found that people were equally likely to perceive of women and men running for office as power-seeking, but that the impact of that perception differed along gender lines. Basically, when men sought power they were seen as strong and competent — and when women did the same, they were seen as less supportive and caring. Across lines of sex, participants in the study expressed “moral outrage” at power-seeking women.

We live in a culture where women are still mostly absent from leadership positions, and glass ceilings abound across sectors. We also live in a country where women asking for power, or demanding it, makes us largely uncomfortable — even if women having power doesn’t. As Doyle put it: “We can accept women in power, but not women’s desire for more of it.”

All studies on covert bias, though, contrast with the findings of researchers who have concluded that there is no overt gender bias holding women back in politics. In fact, studies show that women fare just as well as men once they run. People who are asked bluntly if they’d ever vote for a woman often say they would, and women candidates have obviously won and lost elections just like the men who came before and would come after them did.

Those studies complicate the question of why women are so vastly underrepresented in our government, mostly because they force us to confront an ugly reality: It’s not that women are more likely to lose based only on their sex, it’s that women simply aren’t running.

American University’s Women & Politics Institute’s (WPI) unprecedented Citizen Political Ambition Panel Study set out to examine the place where our pathetic statistics on women who hold public office and the realm of political ambition collide. It didn’t make sense, in the eyes of its Director Jen Lawless, that the numbers on how many women held office had been static for a decade by 2008. Through mail surveys and interviews with men and women who were, in the eyes of the institute, qualified to run for office at various levels and who worked in fields most likely to lead to a political career (law, business, education, and politics), WPI’s CPAPS delved into what they call the “political ambition gap.” In other words, they asked questions of evenly matched men and women with the skills to run for office hoping to uncover a little bit about why women weren’t running.

WPI’s study revealed that men are 35 percent more likely to think of themselves as potential candidates at different levels — across lines of political parties, income, age, race, profession, and region — whereas women are less likely to consider running for office and take concrete steps toward launching a campaign. 65 percent of men reported they felt they were qualified to run, whereas women were twice as likely as men to say they weren’t. 80 percent of men felt they could do the job of someone who held elected office, whereas less than 2/3 of women felt the same way. Women in the study also often considered different positions than men when they did reveal political ambition: Most notably, women were more lilely to be interested in school board positions and men were instead twice as likely than women to express interest in federal positions and 50 percent more lilelty to run at the state level.

And when WPI did their survey all over again, reaching out to the same pool of candidates years later during a time of political sea change, those gaps remained. Later data from the institute echoed these findings as well. One study revealed that young men were more likely to be socialized into considering politics, whereas women were less likely to be exposed to political information and discussion and less likely to think they’d ever be qualified for public office. Another pinpointed women as less competitive, less confident, and more risk-averse than men.

None of this is to say that women don’t dream of a life in politics. Men and women in the WPI survey were about equally likely to report that they harbored thoughts about running for office in the back of their minds over time. “Considering a candidacy,” Lawless concluded, just seems “beyond the realm of possibility for many well-credentialed, politically-interested women.”

Whether women actually suffer for their gender in elections doesn’t matter, really. What does matter is that women perceive of the political landscape facing them as potential candidates as more complicated and complex than their male counterparts do. 12 percent of women in WPI’s major study flat-out reported that they felt they were “the wrong sex” to run, which I wrote in my notes next to a huge sad face. Only 28 percent felt they would win their first race, and 29 percent felt it was unlikely. Other data from the institute also showed that Hillary Clinton’s primary bid in 2007 and Sarah Palin’s VP run in 2008 aggravated women’s feelings of gender imbalance in politics.

Now, everyone has doubts — and certainly those who run for office are no exception. But for women, those doubts are compounded by perceived political bias. Women’s self-doubts play almost two times as big a role in their decisions about whether or not to run than they did in men’s. (That means women are twice as likely to be held back by their doubts — even though some of the women who expressed those doubts had advantages against the men in the other survey pool.)

And what really sucks is that in some ways, these women were — and still are — right. They aren’t evenly matched to men, even if voters aren’t committed en masse to preventing them from holding office based on their sex. Covert biases manifest in ways beyond approval ratings and the strange expectations we have for women in public life, and they have deep impacts on the gender balance in our political system.

WPI found that women evenly matched to men are less likely to be encouraged to run by activists, political and party officials, and the people in their social circles. Some young women don’t receive encouragement to go into public life or politics at all by the time they graduate college. Being encouraged to run doubles the likelihood that someone will run for office.

In addition, women still do a disproportionate amount of domestic labor, whether or not they work full-time or in very tough positions. They’re also likely to view losing privacy and family time negatively when evaluating whether or not they’re ready to run, according to WPI’s research.

Rutgers’ Center for American Women in Politics found that the cost of winning a congressional office has nearly doubled over the last few years, and that gender disparities in giving might aggravate gender disparities in leadership because of it. It now costs $1.6M to win a seat in the House and $10.35M to win in the Senate. Men give more and more often to politicians and the groups that support them. Women candidates are more likely to utilize public financing, which puts them at a disadvantage.

Women also suffer from the sexism ingrained in our society, whether or not they’re power-seekers and politicians; the well-documented confidence gap comes to mind. A 2003 study by David Dunning and Joyce Ehrlinger, for example, found that women were more likely to self-rate their skill levels lower than men despite ultimately being evenly matched in skill to those men, and they were less likely to compete in a skill-based activity than their male counterparts. Women are also more likely to be perfectionists; whereas men report they will apply for a job if they feel they meet 60 percent of the qualifications, women will hold out until they hold 100. We know that women are less likely to see themselves as qualified candidates, even in contrast to men at or below their skill or accomplishment level. If success is about competence and confidence, it’s clear which half of the equation is holding women back in politics and across the board in other sectors.

Some solutions to the gender imbalance in our political system are widely recommended. CAWP and WPI both agree that formal training programs for women candidates about campaigns would help close the gender gap in political leadership, especially for women of color. The Nation‘s Steven Hill, when writing about gender and political leadership from a broader perspective, noted that countries that prioritize recruiting diverse political candidates and have quotas in place tend to see more varied political leadership emerge from that work. He also observed that if America were to shift our electoral politics — if we were to truly change up how we elect political officials — we could see an increase in the number of women elected to those offices. And WPI also noted that groups like EMILY’s List, Eleanor’s List, and the Feminist Majority — groups that support women candidates, prepare them for candidacies, and equip them with the tools to live out those campaigns in the back of their heads go a far way in closing the political ambition gap between men and women. These recommendations and observations are all echoed by Representation 2020’s State of Women’s Representation report from 2015, which took a closer look at gender parity and the path our political system is on — and found that it’s not within reach without big structural changes along the way.

But ultimately, what is stark to me about the underrepresentation of women in American politics is how clearly sexism has impeded women’s progress in the arena of political leadership. Women don’t see themselves reflected in our political system, and they see the intense rigor women must possess in order to survive political campaigns. Women are also more likely to encounter sexism as they grow older, meaning that the lack of political ambition they seem to have out of the gate will only be compounded and deepened as time goes on. In order to get more women into political office, we need to convince more women to run — and that they are truly capable of winning, leading, and succeeding once they do.

And in order to do that, we need to squash a whole lot of sexism.

Fostering political ambition in women means seeing young women and girls as just as likely and able to run for office as our society does young men and boys. It means encouraging women to run, even if we think it might be abundantly clear to them that they’re qualified and competent. It means political parties and elected officials need to put more time into concerted efforts to create more gender diversity in the candidate pool. It means cultivating a political landscape that women don’t see as lopsided and turned against them. It means closing the confidence gap, shutting down imposter syndrome, and quieting the messages women and girls are bombarded with every day that tell them they can’t, they won’t, they shouldn’t, and they don’t want to break barrier and smash glass ceilings.

In the end, voting for women, it turns out, isn’t enough. (Not that it isn’t exhilarating, as well as important.) True gender parity won’t be reached by those means alone, because most of the women who should be running the world will never see their names at the ballot box.

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. Thank you, Carmen. This was thoughtful and, alas, not too surprising. So much of this is similar to the obstacles and perceptions about competence and personality facing women who aspire (or don’t dare aspire) to leadership positions in other areas as well, but the consequences for politics have such a large impact…

    • yep! that was definitely something i kept wanting to tie in, but then this piece would have become a massive research paper instead. plus, the stakes are so much more intense when it comes to electoral politics: like, sure, we need to work to make sure women feel like they have the chance to negotiate better pay, ask for promotions in male-dominated fields, and take on leadership roles across sectors. but there’s just so much more energy involved in running a campaign, and so much more room for all this ugly stuff to manifest. if women aren’t even able to get promotions via one-on-one meetings with their superiors, how can we expect women to feel confident announcing they want to help run the country, or their state, or even their city? the compounded nature of running for office: the fact that it’s male-dominated, highly masculine in terms of value systems – or at least a sector that looks down on the traditionally feminine, power-based, extremely public, etc. etc. – it’s just a zillion times more daunting.

  2. This article has me thinking about when I was in middle school and fangirling hard over Natalie Portman bamfing it up in the Star Wars political arena. I was sure I wanted to be a senator too, just in the United States instead of the Galactic Republic. That was completely off my radar by the end of high school, and I always kind of assumed it was because I wised up. And yeah, probably I did, but now I’m thinking about what I can still do to help other women get there instead.

    Thanks for this article!

    • thank you so much for your comment, aj. do you feel like your experiences are consistent with some of these studies? like, say, people not encouraging you to run or a growing perception of the notion of getting into electoral politics as fundamentally working against you? basically, how can i get you to run for president, please and thank you.

  3. I was at the Dem caucus in Colorado last night, and I was pleased to see the big turnout of young people for Sanders. They didn’t show up for Obama… I’m glad they are engaged, but I don’t think they will work for Clinton, even though she’ll likely be facing Trump. Their personal dislike for her “trumps” their concern for women, African Americans, Muslims, and Latinos. Misogyny? Self-absorption? They were all white in my precinct, and 4/5 male.

    • I’ve noticed this trend too, and in a pool of phd students all studying political science! Watching intelligent white men who study this stuff try to spin arguments that justify why they supported Obama and his policies but couldn’t stomach ever voting for H. Clinton is dizzying and absurd.

      • watching folks conflate hillary clinton and donald trump throughout this election has made me want to remove my eyes with a spoon and/or give myself to the sea on a consistent basis. i’m amazed i’m still standing, lezbereal.

  4. This is both very depressing and also exactly what I was looking for. It speaks to a lot of my current rage.

  5. Thank you, that article was awesome. The differences about when women feel capable of running successfully are huge; perfectionism and (lack of) outward-facing self-provided confidence matter so much when it comes to this sort of stuff.

    Though I wonder also about the (perceived) costs of failure. If when men try and fail they’re no worse off, can try again, but when women try and fail they take a hit, can never try again (without penalty); that’s going to drive us a lot more towards perfectionism and conservative evaluations of our capabilities/chances.

    • yep! and that when women lose, it’s seen as a loss for an entire community. the pressure to win is so much higher because when women lose, we all secretly worry it makes us all less likely to win, y’know? ugh.

  6. I am really glad to see thIs article because my friends and I spend a lot of time talking about this. I work as a political fundraiser in th US and have almost always worked on campaigns for women or minority candidates. My current federal candidate is a woman of color and it’s so important to talk about how difficult this gap is for Candidates to overcome and how huge of a barrier this is. Two really important points my friends and I talk about:
    1. A candidate usually spends something like 50-80% of their time on fundraising (depending on background and office) so the extra difficulty faced in finding donors, getting them to commit to the same amount as they would give a man, and convincing them you’re real is a huge barrier to entry and burns people out from perusing a higher position.
    2. Many of the groups and networks that help women run for office don’t kick in or jump in until you prove “viability”, which usually involves just gunning it as hard as you can as fast as you can on your own in order to get access early enough.
    There is so much that needs to be done but it can be frustrating sometimes to see how much still needs to be done and I find myself in conversations all the time about what we can do to make this feel doeable for women without wealthy or political backgrounds.

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