Explorations on Women (Not) Running for Office – Part 1

By Rylee Sommers-Flanagan

Last fall, I decided to write a thesis about women running for state legislative office. This choice—to research women in domestic politics rather than the concentrations of my International Studies major (Latin America and Political Economy)—meant taking on a subject about which I had mostly intuitive and first-hand knowledge – and very little academic expertise.

Although I’m a longtime feminist, I have never taken a women’s studies course. Usually, I’ve defended feminism loudly, flying by the seat of my bloomers, and wielding loose and unofficial lingo.

Therefore, the decision to actually read what published scholars had to say felt important; I was adding a scholarly dimension to my everyday feminism. I imagined throwing much bigger (metaphorical) punches in those public debates that always seemed to rev up around beer number two with some friend’s friend who happened to think he knew a thing or two about the non-plight of women today. Possessing research and facts would let me stand on higher ground, from whence I would express significant ideas: Did you know that there are only six female governors in the United States? Out of fifty? Yet you claim feminism passé. Hmmm.

I did imagine having more complex, scholarly things to say, but the example serves.

In any case, I already knew that women constitute 17% of the United States Congress and roughly 23% of the representatives in state legislatures. Oddly enough, women’s representation at that level has only increased by about 4% in the last fifteen years. And there are wide differences by state, with the percentage of female reps dipping as low as 9.4% in South Carolina’s legislature and rising to 41% in Colorado’s.

Early in the research rounds, a big surprise (for me) surfaced: Women and men who run for political office are equally likely to succeed in attaining that office, all other factors being equal (the big ceteris paribus). And, as Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox noted in 2010 after conducting a nationwide survey of potential office seekers, women not only run less often than men run, but are also less likely to be “self-starters.”

Reading that, I felt somewhat indignant. It reminded me of the OpEd Project, which empowers women to write editorials and participate in “thought leadership” because women usually don’t contribute as often as men. Indeed, according to the OpEd Project’s ongoing tally, we only write around 20% of the letters to the editor at places like The New York Times.

So why does it matter? What’s wrong with fewer women in politics and editorials? In a survey of the existing literature, I found a few answers.  Some have to do with legitimately representational government, the importance of substantive representation of minority interests, and the possibility that greater numbers competing for office would yield more competent policymakers.

Of course, the most convincing argument to me is that equal representation of a diverse society is the most just situation. The failure of equal representation in our government is a failure of justice. We share a terrible history of subjugation and inherited discrimination with most of the world. Now the opportunity is here to change all that.

For me, it’s more than a little frustrating to think that women aren’t fighting back everywhere, all the time. But I know reality is more complicated than a “women don’t want to” or “women won’t” argument. Working through my thesis required me to understand the bigger picture by reading extensively and carefully, thinking critically, and formulating question after question. We still don’t have most of the answers, and we don’t know why women run less often than men do, but we do know that it matters.

Rylee Sommers-Flanagan graduated from Emory University in May 2011, with a BA in International Studies. She will be pursuing an MLitt in Creative Writing from the University of St. Andrews in the fall.

In forthcoming posts, Rylee will delve into the details of her thesis, first outlining some of the factors associated with women's election to office in the United States (including some original research findings), and later discussing the current work of women representing women at various levels of political office.

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