Why don’t more women run for political office?

"Votes For Women" Canvas Bag, ca. 1920

“Votes For Women” Canvas Bag, ca. 1920 (Photo credit: Cornell University Library)

By Robert Mann

I have a friend who was thinking about running for the legislature a few years ago. As she recruited a group of advisors to help her decide whether it was worth the run, she invited us to meet at a local Baton Rouge church to talk over her potential campaign. She invited five men and five women.

Only the men showed up.

She decided not to run, and one reason, she later told me, was that she didn’t get the support she was promised by women.

As she was plotting her run, she said, some women demanded to know her position on abortion. A devout Catholic, she’s opposed to abortion, but doesn’t necessarily think it ought to be a matter of legislation. That, she learned, wasn’t good enough. These women wouldn’t support her unless she pledged 100 percent support for abortion rights, even though her potential opponent – a Republican incumbent – was rabidly opposed to abortion rights of any kind.

This same friend now advocates on behalf of the poor, families and children at the Louisiana Capitol. After watching the 2013 legislative session up close, she’s even more convinced she did the right thing by not running.

All the backroom dealing and alliances, that often have little or nothing to do with the actual merits of legislation, soured her on the process. “I understand compromise,” she told me, “but not one piece of legislation [that I lobbied for] was voted on because of its merits. I don’t know if I can be a part of that.”

Nothing, she said, shocked her more than watching the House Education Committee at work. That committee of 20 has only three women and yet makes education policy that affects a school population that is half female (and don’t forget that most teachers are women).

“When I go to the Education Committee, I just shake my head,” she said. “It’s a bunch of white men and I say, ‘How many of you have ever been in a classroom, except when you were in school?’”

When I asked a group of women to share with me their thoughts on why more women don’t run for political office, I was pleased to get several very thoughtful responses. They told me much more than I could fit into the 720 words I’m allotted for my most-recent column in the Times-Picayune.

One friend also provided this helpful link, a report by the Louisiana Women’s Policy and Research Commission from 2012. It is interesting and very informative. I wonder if Gov. Bobby Jindal or anyone in the Legislature ever bothered to read it?

So, I share with you here some of my friends’ thoughts and reflections on the issue. I invite you to add your own thoughts below in the comments section or under my column on NOLA.com:

Kathleen Babineaux Blanco
Governor of Louisiana, 2004-2008

When asked to run for office, I have found the most common answer from women is, “Oh, I am not qualified to do so.” Herein lies the fatal flaw….a total misunderstanding of what qualifications are expected for an individual to put oneself up for consideration. The list of such qualifications for the vast majority of offices is deceptively simple: one must be at least 18 (eligible and registered to vote) and breathing!

Other than candidates for judge, district attorney or attorney general who must possess law degrees, and the office of governor, which has an age consideration, the real qualifications are actual life experiences from any realm whatsoever articulated against a competitor’s attributes. Unlike women, many men whether they run or not, seem to believe they are well qualified to hold any political office, even when their particular experiences may be found unappealing to the electorate. This attitudinal difference may be defined as intestinal fortitude, or supreme self-confidence.

The reality is many women define limited arenas in which we allow our lives to play out. Some are big, some are small, but all arenas have the effect of limiting mobility because we are fenced in. We build those fences to protect ourselves and our families and seldom leave that safe place unless unexpected events force us out.

When I realized I had built a nice fence around my life I also realized if I could build a fence with its many limitations, I could also build a gate, so I did. That gate gave me freedom to explore the world of possibilities and took me to Louisiana’s most powerful gate…that of the Governor’s mansion. I encourage women to build gates and let opportunity happen. Take a few more risks, and assuredly life will, at least, be more interesting. And maybe more spirited women will have the guts to run and become the next mayor, legislator or governor. Hurry ladies, we are anxiously awaiting your entry into the Political Hall of Fame.

Tara Hollis
School teacher, candidate for governor of Louisiana in 2011

As a state we are known for being apathetic toward politics – but we are not so about issues involving religion or family. Traditional roles set out in the Bible are still the roles many of us adhere to today. When applied to politics these roles allow men to jump in the political ring on a whim, while women have to give careful consideration to the welfare of their children and spouse, and receive a consenting nod from friends and family before even testing the waters. Men that run for office are often admired for their courage, determination, and drive, while women are often viewed as neglecting their duties at home.

I was once told that “men run for office so they can be something, while women run for office so they can do something.” Not to step on any toes – I know several men to whom this does not apply – but I believe that statement is very true.
Just recently I received a promotional DVD announcing a certain politician’s run for governor on the Democratic ticket – 2015. On his DVD he claims that he wants what is best for Louisiana. He is going to put Louisiana 1st. But this same man refused to do anything for our state when he had the opportunity in 2011. He could have run – when it would have really mattered. But he wants to be Governor – and his chances in 2011 weren’t as good as if he waited till 2015. As for putting Louisiana 1st – that would just be perks of the job in 2015 – Louisiana would just have to wait.

During my campaign I was able to talk with many of the women legislators, and all of them seem to have a moment – something that happened in their life that prompted them to run. Not one told me she ran because she always wanted to be in politics, or because she knew she wanted to be a congresswoman or a senator.
My run was prompted by wanting a better school to teach in for myself, my husband, and my colleagues. I wanted a better education for my children and the children in my classroom.

I ran to better our state – to provide for our future and the future of our children.
I believe to get more women in this state to run for political office – they would have to believe they can make a difference. I believe they would also have to feel it would be worth the sacrifice.

My campaign lasted only six months, but for those six months I was away from my children constantly. The reality was that it took a terrible toll on my family.
I am often asked if I will run again, and with a brief moment of reflection – I have to answer no. When I am honest with myself – I know that what I did was hard, it was hard on me, my husband, and my children. It was a sacrifice I am not willing to make again. I believe God knows what He’s doing, and men and women are different creatures for a reason. For some women I am sure this is not an issue – but for me – my place is at home with my kids – and in the classroom – with my kids.

Mary-Patricia E. Wray
Legislative and Political Director
Louisiana Federation of Teachers

I have a couple theories about why women don’t run in Louisiana. First, I think that groups that do the best job of “representing” the views of women don’t do a very good job of working on candidate recruitment. On the other side of that coin, I think monied interests that do a very good job of candidate recruitment tend to recruit men. We could talk all day about the “why” of that dichotomy, but here I will simply makenote of my unscientific opinion with regard to who is and is not doing the candidate recruitment. As a lobbyist I find that there are times that I can more effectively advocate for policy simply because I answer to a different kind of constituency who requires me to be focused on one policy area. The optimist in me would love to think that the lack of women candidates is a result of women’s experience that they can better and more efficiently influence policy decisions when they are NOT the candidate; that somehow women “choose” not to become candidates because they want to be unfettered by considerations such as fundraising and reelection while doing their politicking. However, that is just unfounded optimism, since I know that it is not likely to be true.

I wouldn’t want to be written off as a young whipper snapper ignorant to the fact that issues plaguing women candidates in my mother and grandmothers generation have somehow evaporated. We still bear children, we still make less than our male counterparts for the same work. Our decision to run for office is still a different kind of sacrifice for our families, one with different effects than if our partners were to choose to run for office. It is important to note that these things still keep us from running for office. It is also important to note that there was a time when these obstacles may have served to motivate many women to break the glass ceiling. But, I am discouraged by the apathy of women my own age, who seem to take for granted that those who came before us broke that ceiling. I am in my late twenties and therefore I cannot remember a time when I did not see at least some female politicians on the evening news, or in my local city council chamber. I look forward to a time when the fact that we don’t see enough women will create the same sense of urgency among my generation as not seeing any women office-holders did for my grandmother’s.

As for distinguishing the unique barriers that exist in Louisiana:

Women are not inspired to run for an office, which does not have a demonstrated record impacting the lives of people – women – like them. Our state’s policy commitment – or lack there of – to providing healthcare access and educational opportunity makes clear that bettering the lives of women is not a priority. The profession of teaching, for example, which is overwhelmingly populated by women, recently came under attack in our state. When policy makers blame teachers for social ills, in reality, they are blaming women. Our public healthcare, institutions which overwhelmingly serve poor women and their children, have clearly been devalued by policy makers in recent times, since they have barely survived the current administration’s costly (politically and socially) privatization obsession. Worst of all, poor women of color in our state have been made more and more aware of the lack of interest policy makers have in bettering their lives. Solutions for social problems in their communities include longer and earlier jail time for their sons, and school vouchers that sell their children to the lowest bidder when their schools are deemed “failures.” These factors may not be totally unique to Louisiana, but our frequent dead last position in rankings related to these factors and quality of life speak to how uniquely deplorable social conditions have become in our state.

Now, some would say that these actions by policy makers would inspire women to run to “change” things. But, if women understand and observe the groundswell of support that rams measures like this through our state legislature, they are unlikely to rationally believe that their presence will even make a dent in the policies that devalue their experiences, and ignore their voices. To their credit, they see that the voice of one woman, alone, could not possibly impact the changes they want to see.

Additionally, the buy into the backwards priorities of policy making in our state by women leads them to be satisfied with their representation by other men, or women. (See below regarding mismatched priorities) Women hurt women, when they continue to allow debate to focus on divisive social issues or feel good bi-partisan legislation, void of any real meaning for our citizens. Some women office-holders endorse these out of whack priorities when they indulge a few of their constituents by focusing on fringe issues instead of what really matters in the lives of Louisianans.

In order to get more women to consider running for office in Louisiana:

The men and women that do serve need to be role models by championing the causes of women, real women, who live Louisiana. While our legislature continues to visit issues revolving around gun ownership, pension reform, religious freedom and the like, there is not a priority focus on issues that impact women on an every day basis and which could ultimately change their lives for the better in tangible ways. Working women need public transportation, affordable childcare, and equal pay. At a time when women have started outnumbering men who go to college, our state has let tuition soar, cut state funding by 80% since 2008, effectively taxing the dreams of our students: now mostly women.

Again and again women watch our public policy makers choose politically popular legislation and debates over those that would make their lives better. In some ways, to be a young woman in our state in modern times feels hopeless. In order to be in a position of financial security, such that you can even run for office you first have to overcome all these policy obstacles. So, the floodgate, keeping most women from running could very well be the policies they would so very much like to change.

In order to get more women to run, we need to show them government matters; that elections can not only have negative consequences for them and their families (as they have learned well) but that they can have positive results, too. Having candidates in the legislature and in office who serve as examples that office, whether held by a man or a woman, can lead to the improvement in the quality of life for all of our people regardless of race, class or gender.

How would Louisiana be different if we had more women in elected office? Well, since to some degree the number of women in office and the social condition of women in our state is symbiotic, I can only say that it would be a reasonable assumption that our state would be one in which women thrived in proportion to the women who held office.

Rev. Katie McKay Simpson
Associate Pastor
First United Methodist Church, Baton Rouge

What are some of the barriers or impediments to electing women to public office that we don’t see in other states?

Religion has greatly diminished over the past few decades as a dominant influence on the ideology of people, but still holds some power–particularly in “Bible Belt” states. We are all products of our own formation and experience, so when voters have had experiences–particularly positive ones–with leading women in a representative or teaching role in their lives, they might be apt to be more open to the possibility of women leading them in other spheres of life. The impediment in Louisiana is, from the female pastor to the female partner to the female CEO, we don’t have enough of those models in our communities.

How might Louisiana politics be different if we had more women serving in elected office?

I wouldn’t ascribe to this as a hard and fast gender stereotype, but my experience of leading women as a whole is that they place a higher value on the intrinsic power of collaboration. They understand the potential impact of long-lasting and healthy relationships in creating social change. They tend to put into practice the belief that greater wisdom and more well-developed ideas come from many minds rather than one or two minds working in isolation. Rightly or wrongly, men have been formed to believe that leadership comes from lobbying for siloed interests rather than grassroots organizing. The day is coming where the collaborative model will be seen in our elected officials as operating from a place of strength rather than weakness.

Nancy Roberts
Executive Director & CEO
Louisiana Resource Center for Educators

In my 25 years of advocating for better education, I have come to the conclusion that we have a dysfunctional system because every politician who comes to office wants his (it’s usually a man) stamp on a new education reform. Just when teachers on the front line learn how to implement the newest reform, the Governor/President leaves office and we start over. Jonathon Deming, the father of “Total Quality Management” had a list of 7 deadly sins in management – we’ve committed all of them in education – but the one that haunts us most is #1, “Lack of Constancy of Purpose to Plan Product.” Is this a function of unchecked male ego’s?

The prime example of this was the accountability system that was developed under Governor Mike Foster and was continued under Gov. Blanco. The fact that Foster was a Republican and Blanco was a Democrat was even more remarkable. For 12 years education had a set of guidelines that were in no way perfect but it was clear to everyone how it worked. Any accountability system now will be impacted primarily by competition in the market (charters, vouchers etc.) which will better serve folks in poverty who are quite capable of discerning what is best for their child.

So when it comes to public policy do women have less of a problem with ego? Are they more willing to listen before pulling the trigger? I would submit that women very often understand implementation better than men because in most cases it’s the women employees who have to make the new system work.

When it comes to education reform I’ve become a political agnostic – both parties have initiatives with good and bad embedded in the plan. There needs to be enough time and support to implement the plan and continue to make adjustments. To make an analogy – it’s like driving down the road and the navigator sitting shotgun says, “Turn Left” no “Turn Right” and at some point the driver just stops and does nothing until the navigator makes up his mind where he wants to go. Yes, we need more women in the driver’s seat!

Links for additional reading on this issue:

Women’s Campaign School at Yale

Raising Mrs. President” – A Documentary

National Women’s Political Caucus

Institute for Women’s Policy Research

National Democratic Institute

League of Women Voters

Women’s Studies Database, University of Maryland

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