Research News

Expert: Inspiration, anger motivate women to run for office

Amanda Clayton, assistant professor of political science, studies gender and politics—specifically, the causes and consequences of women’s access to political power around the world. She can provide insight into why so many women are running for office in 2018–and how they might change Washington if they are elected.

Women politicians change policy priorities, attitudes

“Across countries, not just in the United States, we see that women politicians tend to prioritize issues that women themselves care about, so often that means issues related to women’s rights, to health of the family, and to children. We see that once women attain office, those are substantive policy areas that get more funding and get more priority,” she said. “Also, we see gender biases decrease. There’s a historical association that people often have of men being political leaders, but once they’re exposed to women in those roles, those associations tend to decrease over time.”

This effect is particularly impactful for girls and young women, who are still forming their understanding of what a leader looks like, said Clayton. She pointed to the aftermath of the 2008 presidential campaign. “After Sarah Palin ran for vice president, Republican women in the next term were more engaged and more interested in politics. We saw a role model effect among conservative women where seeing a conservative woman in a new role was inspiring and motivating.”

Inspiration motivates women to run. So does anger.

But, Clayton said, the opposite can happen as well—and that may explain the explosion of Democratic women’s political activity we see in the United States today. “We’re seeing women mobilized by their exclusion from political office and by an administration they feel doesn’t particularly seem to respect women personally,” she said.

That may be because women tend to view political power differently than men, she said. “With women, a political career is seen more as a call to duty or a service rather than just about power or ambition for its own sake. We’re seeing women really articulating wanting to run for office in response to particular policies or things that they see going on in their country that they see headed in a particular direction,” she said. “If we just look at the number of women who are running for House seats, for instance, right now— for non-incumbents running on the Democratic side in primaries, about 48 percent are women candidates,” she said.

The “Hillary effect” isn’t reaching GOP women

Clayton said that her work suggests conservative women would like to be represented by other conservative women, but they make up just 17 percent of non-incumbent Republican candidates. This makes Tennessee unusual for having prominent non-incumbent Republican women candidates for both Senate and governor.

However, Clayton said, it’s unlikely they are part of the same wave that’s driving Democratic women candidates, many of whom are seeking office for the first time. She pointed out that senate candidate Marsha Blackburn and gubernatorial candidates Diane Black and Beth Harwell are already experienced legislators taking logical next steps. “What we’re seeing here is what any politician would do: There are strategic opportunities and there are openings, and these women who have worked hard in the pipeline are stepping forward on the Republican ticket.”

America is ready for women leaders

While the United States has below-average women’s representation in government compared to the rest of the world, conditions are ripe for change, Clayton said. “Historically it’s been more difficult for women to attain executive office than to attain legislative office, but in state and national legislatures, we’re seeing that women’s representation is increasing,” she said. “Women are running in record numbers for both the House and the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections. So, it seems like the women candidates themselves are ready and it seems like American voters are ready.”