Explorations on Women (Not) Running for Office – Part 2

By Rylee Sommers-Flanagan*

Last week, Rylee intermixed everyday feminism with an academic feminist perspective to explore why we should care whether fewer women than men run for office. This week, Rylee discusses some of her original research as well as a few of the variables political scientists study in relation to women in politics.

In the 1960s, a child psychologist, Emmy Werner, became interested in where women were running for office in the United States. At the time, there were so few male political scientists interested in research on female policymakers (not to mention a near absence of female political scientists) that Werner was one of the very first to explore the subject in academia. She predicted rural areas would actually be more amenable to female representatives and that planned redistricting, by apportioning more seats to urban areas, would decrease the number of female officeholders. In Vermont and Connecticut, Werner’s predictions proved spot on.

Now, many more political scientists study female representatives in the United States in hopes of understanding why women run where and when they do – and many of the trends Werner observed have changed.

In 1994, Robert Darcy, Susan Welch and Janet Clark published Women, Elections and Representation, cataloguing many of the basic demographic features scholars linked with higher levels of female representation. Some of the explanations are predictable: women are more likely to run and win in districts with higher percentages of college-educated folks; they are also more likely to run in the north, as well as in places with higher levels of diversity, with higher average household incomes, and with greater proportions of women in the district workforce. This last factor made a lot of sense to me, with a background in International Studies, where many scholars have found links between female participation in the workforce and increased proportions of women in politics.

As I delved into the research, I was astounded by the sheer quantity of factors that were already documented. For my own inquiry, I considered my personal experiences in this context.

I chose a small, but not irrelevant, oversight in the existing research. My experience growing up in Montana meant summers on a family ranch just outside Absarokee (population: 800) and school years in Missoula, a college town (population: 60,000). The result was a mixed perspective that led me to believe something cultural – something I couldn’t name – made running for office in Absarokee unlike running for office in Missoula.

Most of the previous research examined women running for office in urban areas, but I believed (and later confirmed) that rural and urban districts are actually substantively and substantially different from one another in their likelihood to elect women. What I found was interesting: in the most urban areas, the percent of college graduates has a relatively strong relationship with the likelihood that a woman will represent a district. In the most rural areas, average household income actually has a relatively strong relationship with the likelihood a woman will represent a district.

That statistical difference indicates a divergence between the urban and the rural when it comes to female political candidates – and it’s probably about more than just population density. Unfortunately, not everything is measureable, and culture, religious history and changing social norms do play a role.

The uplifting news? Running for office doesn’t have to depend on demographics, research isn’t always complete, and statistics don’t illustrate whole realities.

We have the power to change the status quo. We can run for office, or support other women to run. Just remember, once a woman has represented a given district, that district is notably more likely to elect women in the future.

We can act as the recruiters for trailblazers as widely flung as Jeanette Rankin and Sarah Palin (both rural women), and actually change the material available to study. And that would be good.

Political scientists prefer moving targets anyway.

*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. To read her thesis, click here.

Tune in next week for the final post in this series as Rylee discusses the current work of women representing women at various levels of political office.

<< Back to the Full Blog


I've heard before that one of the reasons Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in the UK years ago had to do with her politics -- as a woman, she herself was already a "liberal" idea, and so it was necessary that she be a conservative politician in order to attract a broad spectrum of voters -- conservative moderates, liberal moderates, and probably some in between.

With Obama, this didn't exactly pan out-- liberal politician, "liberal idea" to elect an African-American president.

I'm interested to know to what extent you've seen this ring true in rural vs. urban women politicians -- are there any sociocultural factors that indicate that conservative women are more successful in urban/rural areas, or vice-versa?

Great article!