Women Are Inspired to Run for Office When They See How Political Exclusion Threatens Their Rights
Originally published in LSE. Scholars often suggest that role models inspire women to run for office, but Amanda Clayton, Diana Z. O’Brien, and Jennifer M. Piscopo argue that exclusion can mobilize women when they are faced with policies which threaten to curtail their rights. Using focus groups and surveys, they find that women’s political ambition increases when women are confronted with the policy consequences of their exclusion from decision-making.
Scholars often suggest that role models inspire women to run, but our research began with the fact that the two largest increases in women’s candidacies for the US Congress occurred after events which underscored women’s absence rather than their presence.
In the first “Year of the Woman” in 1992, a then-record number of women ran for Congress following the televised Senate confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas. A Black law clerk, Anita Hill, accused Thomas of sexual harassment. The all-male, all-white Senate Committee’s interrogation of Hill generated widespread outrage. In the second Year of the Woman, in the 2018 midterms, Trump’s election inspired Democratic women to run, who were motivated to ‘do something’ in response to his victory.
The motivating effects of women’s exclusion
To better understand what motivates women to run for political office, we first conducted focus groups with women who ran or considered running in 2018. Participants centered our attention on the combined effects of the absence of women decision-makers and the risk of women’s rights being rolled back.
In the focus groups, we showed participants the below image from 2017. Then-Vice President Mike Pence is shown meeting with a group of far-right US House legislators (the Freedom Caucus) to discuss repealing federal rules that require health insurance coverage for new and expecting mothers. Our focus group participants expressed outrage seeing this photo and described the importance of “cut-and-pasting” women like themselves into these decision-making situations.
Participants emphasized that seeing all-male groups like the Freedom Caucus make decisions about women’s rights underscored their feeling that “politics is a place where someone like me can make a difference.” Political scientists often describe this feeling by using the term political efficacy.
Exclusion and policy threat work together
Focus groups led us to develop a new theory linking the combination of exclusion and policies which threaten to curtail women’s rights – which we call ‘policy threat’ – to increases in women’s political ambition. We formed a key hypothesis: that exclusion and policy threat will motivate women to seek elected office.
Our focus group respondents had underscored how threat and exclusion need to work together. Respondents reported not feeling motivated when faced with a gender-balanced group, because they thought “women were already there and doing good work,” They also felt demoralized (rather than inspired) when thinking only about exclusion, like Clinton’s defeat.