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Why So Few Women Running for Office?

Editor's Note: A version of this article was originally published before the November 2016 election. Since that time, a record number of women have entered races.

KQED’s Forum recently hosted a show on the political gender gap. The premise is that we have too few women running for office at the federal and local levels. Getting women to run at the federal level starts by having women run at the local level — those down-ballot races that few people pay attention to. That’s because people often work their way up from local to state to federal offices. And as San Francisco Magazine noted last year, term limits mean potentially more women in state offices in the near future, which means more women in federal offices after that.

I write from the perspective of someone running for re-election to a local, down-ballot office. One reason that fewer women run for local offices may be that it is challenging getting people to pay attention to the local races, especially during presidential years. In addition, politics is still very much a “good old boys” club. I’m grateful to Emerge California for proving me the training and network necessary to run in the first place (and for Emerge America for doing such a fantastic job across the country at training Democratic women to run).

There are so many reasons why more women don’t run for office in general. First, the key to a successful election is money. Right or wrong (and I argue that it’s very, very wrong), the amount of money raised by the first filing deadline determines your estimated viability, your likelihood for endorsements, and even your potential to raise more money. Raising money is hard. There’s no way around it. And although women generally do a great job at asking for money for other people or causes, we generally have a hard time asking people to invest in ourselves. This is particularly true for those of us whose backgrounds are not political and whose family and friends and networks do not have a history of being a “big donor” or even a little donor to political campaigns.

Second, politics is messy. There has never been a truer statement than needing a thick skin to run for office. Individuals, organizations, and PACs often already have their minds made up before even meeting with all of the candidates, assuming they even meet with all of the candidates; some organizations select who they think they’ll like or support and meet only with them. And often, those endorsements are determined not by who the most qualified candidate is, but by past relationships, potential future political relationships, political favors, or how you have been labeled, often by people who have no idea what your policy stances actually are. Yet people rely on these endorsements, faithfully taking the slate cards of their favorite organizations to the voting booth with them without doing any independent research on the candidates. It’s not to say that all individuals or organizations do this, but it is something to keep in mind and a reason why independent analysis is always a good thing, especially when evaluating female candidates.

As I’ve said it before: San Francisco is a special kind of crazy when it comes to politics. If you’re branded a “moderate” or a “progressive” in San Francisco-speak, not only can you forget about having support from those on the “other side” (suspend reality for a second and pretend that we’re not talking about minuscule differences of shades of blue and that we’re all actually on the same side), but people also make assumptions about you, and very publicly. Needless to say, those assumptions are often incorrect.

Politics is also, well, political. Most women are pragmatic and practical and want to get shit done. We don’t have time to play political games. Yet running for office, particularly in San Francisco, requires that we at least acknowledge these games. This means fending off unfair (and sometimes sexist) attacks. It means remaining quiet when we’re told that we “look miserable” because we didn’t smile enough, but not too quiet that we’re complete pushovers. It means plugging away at good policy and sound fiscal management when powerful organizations put politics before people and before good governance in an attempt to elect their own yes-people to keep you from winning when you don’t give them everything they want exactly when they want it.

When running for office, you really see who your true friends are and are not. You see who is ethical. You see who extends professional courtesy and who is out for themselves. You see who prefers to tow a party line and who stands up for what’s right regardless of political cost. You see who wants to “be” something and who wants to “do” something. Generally speaking, women who get involved in politics do so because they want to do something rather than be something. But navigating all of these politics can be challenging, especially for women in a good old boys’ atmosphere.

Finally, (well, at least for this essay), there are the logistics of running for office as a woman. Running for office is one of the most time-consuming, thankless, soul-sucking experience that exists. And I say that as a parent! As a candidate, particularly a first-time candidate, you have to meet with the leaders of every organization and special interest group in your jurisdiction. In San Francisco, there is a democratic club for each of the 11 districts, as well as many, many neighborhood democratic clubs, citywide democratic clubs, and special interest organizations, not to mention every elected official. This equates to no fewer than 60 coffee or lunch meetings. Then there are the actual endorsement meetings and interviews, the fundraisers, the galas, the public events, the press conferences, and the hearings that are relevant to the office for which you are running, combined with the never-ending “call time” for fundraising (see above). Most women also work a full-time job and try to balance their family on top of this.

Speaking of family and parenting, in 2012, when I ran for the first time, I distinctly remember thinking that there’s no way I could do it with a kid. After losing that election by about 500 votes, I decided to run again in 2014, literally while I was having my first child (my filing deadline was August 7. My due date was August 7. I gave birth August 16 and was back on the campaign trail by end of September.) I’m now running for re-election with a two-year-old. The only way this is possible is by having a supportive partner (and a somewhat flexible job) and a supportive network in the community. One of the things that Emerge teaches us is that THE most important decision a woman can make in her life is who she chooses as a partner. This is such a true statement. Research has shown that even among relatively equitable households, women still bear the brunt of the cooking, cleaning, and child care. All of this makes the logistics of running for office difficult.

However, we know that having more women in office is beneficial to our society as a whole. We know that places with more women in leadership have higher levels of governmental effectiveness, and that our own Congress is more effective with more women, although that effectiveness diminishes with gridlock, and when women comprise a greater percentage in Congress, support for bills related to so-called women’s issues increase (although only about 1 in 50 of these bills actually make it, proving that we need a lot more women!). Also at the federal level, female Congress members secure ten percent more funding than their male counterparts and introduce twice as many bills. We know that women are more collaborative and better at compromising, Women subscribe more than men to the famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”

We also know that women don’t run for office because they’re not asked to run for office. In trying to balance life, whose weight falls mostly on our shoulders, it’s often not in the scope of consideration unless and until someone brings it up. We know that women review the list of their skills and qualifications and home in the single one that may not be relevant to the job, using that single thing as a reason to not run, while men review their own list and home in on the single one that IS relevant, using that single thing as a reason TO run. That’s why organizations such as Ignite, Inc., Emerge America, and Close the Gap are so important.

In order to get more women into office, we need to get money out of politics. We need to do a better job at dividing labor among men and women. The irony is that in order to do this, we need to have more women in office to create laws related to paid family leave, affordable and adequate child care, universal preschool, universal healthcare, and mandatory paid sick days.

But what we really need to do to get women to run is simple: Ask them to run and provide the support and infrastructure for them to do so.

It’s been suggested that women make better policy makers in fact because they have to work that much harder than men just to be elected. Whatever the reason, it behooves us all to elect more women into office, especially moms!

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