Baker, Bus Driver, Babysitter, Candidate? Revealing the Gendered Development of Political Ambition Among Ordinary Americans

  • Melody Crowder-MeyerEmail author
Original Paper


Americans without prestigious educational or professional backgrounds hold offices throughout the American government. Yet we know little about how these ordinary Americans developed political ambition or whether gender differences in ambition are present among this population. This paper uses a national sample of 1240 Americans to fill these gaps, identifying how political ambition develops differently for ordinary men and women, and drawing on this knowledge to help explain the surge in female candidates following the 2016 election. In contrast with elite samples, I show that the factors determining men’s political ambition are almost entirely distinct from those shaping women’s ambition among the mass public. I theorize that ordinary women’s ambition is particularly affected by the gendered expectations of those around them and the challenges they face balancing caregiving, work, and political engagement without the experience and resources possessed by elite women. I find support for this theory; ordinary women’s ambition is particularly dependent on the support of personal and political sources who can help them manage the demands of candidacy. In contrast, ordinary men’s ambition depends far less on encouragement from others, and instead increases with levels of education, political participation, and marriage. These results, and the distribution of the factors shaping ambition among Americans, help explain women’s low descriptive representation among American candidates and elected officials. They also provide a potential explanation for the unusual increase in women’s candidacies in 2017 and 2018.


Political ambition Candidate emergence Women and politics Gender and politics American political behavior 



I thank Mirya Holman, Jason Windett, Jennifer Piscopo, and the Gender and Political Psychology Writing Group, as well as the editor and anonymous reviewers, for their helpful comments.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author declares that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

11109_2018_9498_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (277 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 276 kb)


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Political Science DepartmentDavidson CollegeDavidsonUSA

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