Women are more politically mobilized than ever before — but that’s not enough to get them into office. A POLITICO investigation reveals what’s really stopping women from breaking through.
One morning this spring, 80 women of different ages, parties and backgrounds gathered in a hotel ballroom in Ames, Iowa, to learn how to run for office. They poured themselves coffee, nodded to their neighbors and listened to experts explain the relative merits of radio ads vs. billboards. Six months earlier, many would not have imagined spending a Friday this way. But then came the 2016 election.
Monic Behnken, an African-American sociologist at Iowa State University, arrived with a stack of postcards for her local school board campaign. “When I woke up on Nov. 9,” she said, “I knew I couldn’t leave this world to my children without doing something.” A few tables over, Deidre DeJear was quietly taking notes, preparing a run for Iowa secretary of state. “I was never one of those kids who said I wanted to be president when I grew up,” she said. “But running is less about me and more about, ‘Who can I trust to get this done?’ Right now, I trust myself.”
The United States has flatlined when it comes to electing women: At the local, state and federal level, women hold fewer than 1 in every 4 elected offices, and the ratio hasn’t budged much lately. The U.S. ranks 101st, below China, Iraq and Afghanistan, when it comes to gender equity in our national legislature—down from 52nd two decades ago.
Studies show that women tend to win elections at the same rate as men—but they are far less likely to run at all. A POLITICO investigation into the causes of gender inequality in electoral politics found that the traditional explanations—fundraising imbalances, sexism in the media and the voting booth, unyielding party bureaucracies and more—have faded in importance. Today, the greatest obstacle may be less conspicuous: America has a shortage of female politicians because, to put it simply, women don’t want the job.