Baker, Bus Driver, Babysitter, Candidate? Revealing the Gendered Development of Political Ambition Among Ordinary Americans
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.
KeywordsPolitical 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.
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 was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
- Bassett, L. (2018). Eyeing the midterms, some republican women are taking on the ‘aging, white’ GOP. Huffington Post. Retrieved February 12, 2018 from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/republican-women-midterm-election_us_5a7e098ce4b044b3821d5888.
- Bianchi, S., Robinson, J., & Milkie, M. (2006). Changing rhythms of American family life. New York: Russel Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
- Bloomberg. (2018). Record Numbers of Women Running for Office May Not Mean Big Gains in Congress. Retrieved May 7, 2018 from https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-women-candidates/.
- Carnes, N. (2013). White-Collar government: The hidden role of class in economic policy making. University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Catalyst. (2018). Women in Leadership, 2018. http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/topics/women-leadership?regions=98&research_type=All&calendar_year%5Bvalue%5D%5Byear%5D=&page=1.
- CAWP. (2017). “Women in Elective Office 2017.” Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-elective-office-2017.
- CAWP. (2018). 2018: Women Candidates for U.S. Congress and Statewide Elected Executive. Retrieved May 31, 2018 from http://cawp.rutgers.edu/buzz-2018-potential-women-candidates-us-congress-and-statewide-elected-executive.
- CEDA. (2011). California elections data archive. Institute for Social Research, California State University, Sacramento. http://www.csus.edu/isr/projects/ceda.html.
- Cohn, D., Livingston, G., Wang, W. (2014). After decades of decline, a rise in stay-at-home mothers. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.Google Scholar
- Dittmar, K. (2018). Pink wave: A note of caution. CAWP Footnotes. Retrieved January 26, 2018 from http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/footnotes/pink-wave-note-caution.
- Dolan, J., Deckman, M., & Swers, M. L. (2016). Women and politics: Paths to power and political influence (3rd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
- EMILY’s List. (2018). Over 34,000 Women Want to Run for Office. Retrieved February 27, 2018 from https://www.emilyslist.org/news/entry/over-34000-women-want-to-run-for-office.
- Fowler, L., & McClure, R. (1989). Political ambition: Who decides to run for congress. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
- Frostenson, S. (2018). The women candidate tracker. Politico. Retrieved May 23, 2018 from https://www.politico.com/interactives/2018/women-rule-candidate-tracker/.
- Hochschild, A., & Machung, A. (1989). The second shift. New York: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
- Holman, M. R. (2015). Women in politics in the American City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Google Scholar
- Holman, M.R., and Schneider, M.C. (2016). Gender, race, and political ambition: how intersectionality and frames influence interest in political office. Politics, Groups, and Identities. Retrieved July, 1–17 from https://doi.org/10.1080/21565503.2016.1208105.
- Karnig, A., and Welch, S. (1980). Black representation and urban policy. University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
- Lourgos, A.L. (2017). More women exploring political careers after trump’s election. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved April 7, 2017 from www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-women-running-for-office-met-20170407-story.html.
- Martin, J., and Lu, D. (2018). Democrats’ best recruitment tool? President trump. New York Times. Retrieved April 6, 2018 from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/04/06/us/surge-in-democratic-candidates-for-the-house.html.
- Niven, D. (1998). The missing majority: The recruitment of women as state legislative candidates. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.Google Scholar
- Palmer, B., & Simon, D. (2008). Breaking the political glass ceiling: Women and congressional elections (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
- Richmond, R. (2017a). Emily’s list aims to seize its moment. The Story Exchange. Retrieved November 8, 2017 from https://thestoryexchange.org/emilys-list-aims-seize-moment/.
- Richmond, R. (2017b). Emerge America Is Embracing a 50-State Strategy. The Story Exchange. Retrieved November 9, 2017 from https://thestoryexchange.org/emerge-america-embracing-50state-strategy/.
- Sanchez, L. (2018). Among record number of female candidates, three times as many are democrats as GOP. The Hill. Retrieved April 21, 2018 from http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/384261-despite-rise-in-female-candidates-gop-women-running-for-office-remains.
- Sandberg, S. (2013). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. Random House.Google Scholar
- Slaughter, A.-M. (2012). Why women still can’t have it all. The Atlantic. Retrieved August 2012 from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/.
- Tolleson-Rinehart, S. (2001). Do women leaders make a difference? In S. J. Carroll (Ed.), The impact of women in public office (pp. 149–165). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
- Tomz, M., King, G., and Zeng, L. (1999). RELOGIT: Rare events logistic regression, Version 1.1. Harvard University. http://gking.harvard.edu/.
- Van Oot, T. (2018). Can This Group Close the Gender Gap in Politics for Good? The Lily. Retrieved March 7, 2018 from https://www.thelily.com/can-this-group-close-the-gender-gap-in-politics-for-good/.
- Yamamoto, M. (2018). Solo Moms: 1, patriarchy: 0—Mary Catherine Roberson wins her first election. Esme. 2018. https://esme.com/single-mom-hall-of-fame/everyday-all-stars/single-mom-mary-catherine-roberson-wins-election.