Prominent Role Models: High-Profile Female Politicians and the Emergence of Women as Candidates for Public Office

AJPS Author Summary by Christina Ladam, Jeffrey J. Harden, and Jason H. Windett 

Their article “Prominent Role Models: High-Profile Female Politicians and the Emergence of Women as Candidates for Public Office” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

AJPS Author Summary - Prominent Role ModelsWhy are women less likely than men to run for office? Women’s presence in American government has grown considerably over the last several decades, and a great deal of research shows that women and men face similar electoral favorability. The political climate appears to be favorable for women candidacies. Nonetheless, men still dominate many political institutions–women hold only 19% of seats in the U.S. Congress and 25% in state legislatures.

Scholarship addressing this question offers many answers, from differences in socialization to contextual and institutional factors. Here we consider the role played by prominent female officeholders on other women’s decisions to enter the political arena as candidates themselves. Studies find that female officeholders help other women better see themselves as part of the political system, but those studies are limited to individual political behavior. We extend this idea, asking if prominent female officeholders produce more female candidates.

We theorize that prominent female officeholders in this role model position encourage more women to run for office. We consider two pathways for this effect: through symbolic inspiration and motivation or through practical efforts in recruitment. To what extent does a female role model in office inspire women to run themselves?  To what extent does a woman in a prominent office act as a party leader in recruiting additional women for office?

We look to the American states to examine these questions, estimating the causal effect of a woman holding the position of governor or U.S. senator in a state on the proportion of women who subsequently run for the state’s legislature. Using a dataset spanning 1978-2012, we find that a prominent female officeholder exerts a substantively large positive effect. We demonstrate that, for an average election, a female governor or senator adds about 7 female candidates for state legislative office.

In order to better understand the causal mechanism, we also look at whether a female officeholder in a neighboring state may serve as a role model for women to run for office. This separates the two mechanisms proposed, as female officeholders in a neighboring state can serve a symbolic role but do not likely recruit additional female candidates in that other state. We find evidence that female officeholders in neighboring states do have a positive effect. Though probably not definitive, this finding does suggest greater support for the symbolic role model effect.

Our work contributes to scholarly understanding of political representation of women as well as normative assessments of the quality of democracy. We find that, on top of their influence on the political behavior of women in the mass public, female officeholders can also serve as role models for other women to enter the political arena directly. Thus, we contend that women serving in prominent political offices are crucial to the goal of improving women’s political representation.

About the Authors: Christina Ladam is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder; Jeffrey J. Harden is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame; Jason H. Windett is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. Their article “Prominent Role Models: High-Profile Female Politicians and the Emergence of Women as Candidates for Public Office” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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