By this point in 2018, you would have to be under a rock to have missed stories about the “pink wave” or “surge” of women candidates this year. Data from the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University confirms that a record number of women are running for office in 2018. But will they win?
Recent reports from NPR and Politico heed the caution I issued in January: the majority of women candidates, at least at the congressional level, are running against the tide. They are seeking to unseat incumbents, a difficult task made even harder in districts and states that are solidly aligned with the opposing party. In 2018, this narrative is particularly true for Democratic women; they account for nearly all of the increase in women’s candidacies for the U.S. House from 2016 to 2018, and the majority are running as challengers.
This does not mean women won’t win. Democratic women challengers defied expectations in last year’s election for the Virginia House of Delegates and they have been responsible for nearly two-thirds of the red-to-blue special election successes at the state legislative level in the past year. Still, the numeric outcomes for women in November 2018 might not live up to the hype generated in recent months. By historical comparison, for example, the number of women in Congress nearly doubled in 1992 – the “Year of the Woman.” A doubling of women in Congress is unlikely to happen after this fall’s election, despite the gains we are likely to see across levels of office and for a diversity of women in 2018.
This year, I suggest we could and should evaluate women candidates’ success by a different measure. Win or lose, the women running have the power to disrupt norms of both gender and candidacy.
In my book, I argue that candidates – women and men alike – play a key role in shaping our collective expectations of what it means to be a candidate for political office in the U.S. In the images they present, messages they put forth, and tactics they adopt, candidates make decisions about whether to adhere to or reject the prevailing rules of political engagement – rules that have, until this point, favored masculinity and men. Backed by research showing incongruity between traits we value in leaders and traits we associate we women, candidates have historically sought to prove they are “man enough” for the job by touting credentials and expertise more often assumed of men. In doing so, they have maintained masculinity as the standard by which fitness for political office is measured.
By this standard, women candidates’ success comes by employing what scholars Mary Christine Banwart and Mitchell McKinney describe as a “gender adaptiveness” strategy where women candidates compensate for gender-specific challenges without disrupting their stereotypical foundations. But what if women and men altered, instead of adapted to, the credentials for candidate success? One way to do this is to redefine the ways in which stereotypically masculine credentials – like strength or toughness – are conveyed. Take U.S. House candidate Sol Flores’ (D-IL) ad this year, where she described her own experience of combatting sexual abuse as evidence of the fighter she is and would be for the people of Illinois’ 4th congressional district. That’s toughness – but not the kind that comes by a show of brute force.
Flores’ ad reflects another shift in strategy where women candidates embrace their experiences and perspectives as women as an electoral asset, instead of treating their gender as a hurdle to overcome on the campaign trail. In her introductory ad, House candidate Amy McGrath (D-KY) talks about petitioning Congress to allow women in military combat roles, a rule change that helped to pave her own path to becoming a fighter pilot in the U.S. Marines. McGrath’s military service meets a stereotypically masculine qualification, but the context in which she presents that service reveals how being a woman has heightened her sensitivity to – and understanding of – gender inequities of power. When Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah unapologetically identifies as a woman and a mother in her first campaign ad, she offers those identities – and the distinct experiences that they offer her – as some among the many merits on which she is asking for voter support.
In addition to the effects that these strategic decisions can have on altering conceptions of candidate qualifications, the symbolic impact of seeing a diverse “wave” of women running for office should not be understated. Recent research from Christina Ladam, Jeffrey Harden, and Jason Windett finds that high-profile women officeholders motivate other women to run for office, and previous research suggests that mobilizing effect is not limited to women officeholders. Lonna Rae Atkeson finds that competitive female candidates cue women citizens who align ideologically with them to increase their political engagement. These findings support a conclusion made in Nancy Burns, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Sidney Verba’s 2001 book that, “The more it looks as if politics is not simply a man’s game, the more psychologically involved with politics women are.”
When I suggested to a political strategist that measures of campaign success might include disrupting images and norms of political leadership, he told me, “I’m not a social change agent. I’m a campaign manager and I got to win.” But making social – or institutional – change in political campaigns is winning. In the short term, disrupting expectations of both gender and candidacy on the campaign trail pushes voters to rethink what they value in our elected leaders and offers more than one path to victory for candidates. In the long term, challenging the masculine-dominated status quo in campaigning – and an even broader homogeneity in race, class, age, sexuality, and other candidate characteristics – expands the pool of potential candidates who will run and win. The responsibility to redefine our ideals of political leadership should not only fall on women candidates, but if that’s one result of more women running in 2018, then we’ve all won.
Kelly Dittmar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers-Camden, Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), and Project Director at Gender Watch 2018. She is also the author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns.