Opinion

My female students don’t want to run for office. That needs to change.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the winner of a Democratic congressional primary in New York, reacts while talking to the media, Wednesday, June 27, 2018, in New York. Ocasio-Cortez upset U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley and will be a new member of the U.S. House.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the winner of a Democratic congressional primary in New York, reacts while talking to the media, Wednesday, June 27, 2018, in New York. Ocasio-Cortez upset U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley and will be a new member of the U.S. House. AP Photo

The massive interest in the 2018 midterm elections has caused a renewed interest in the role of women in politics. The question of what difference “the woman voter” or “the woman candidate” makes to American democracy has captured our attention.

Women securing 100 seats in the U.S. House for the first time in American history shows that women have more political power than ever. However, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings exhibited few differences from the earlier Clarence Thomas hearings, seeming to reiterate that women have diminished power in a male-dominated political environment. A panel comprised primarily of men dismiss claims of sexual assault and took a man at his word, allowing him to assume one of the most powerful posts in the country.

This dominance of men in electoral politics often has translated into few women expressing any interest in running for political office. Each year in my Gender, Politics and Policy class it is extremely rare for even one of my female students to express an interest in running for elected office.

Despite this preponderance of male power, this midterm election marked a positive transformation of women’s political consciousness. Women have been less likely to run for political office, and this has not changed much with recent generations. This year, however, a dramatic shift occurred with the Center for American Women and Politics reporting that 476 women were running for the U.S. House of Representatives alone. This is 178 more women than the last record in 2012. These numbers do not even count the larger number of women running for state legislatures.

The 2018 midterm election is evidence that women no longer feel that women’s only avenues for change fall within the traditional inclinations to improve home and community. Women are finding an outlet in electoral politics. The public service motivation of women is quite high, especially among young women. As women gain more seats in Congress and state legislatures, we might expect gendered changes in political discourse and disposition, with a public service ethic replacing the anger and demonization that is common today.

Women in the United States have vast experience in public service, and they outnumber men in public administration graduate programs nearly three to one. While we see President Trump focusing on increasing media attention and public support through grandstanding and weaponizing fear, women serve across our country delivering public services in some of the most effective and efficient ways of any democracy. This is truly what the elected representative should be and could be with the mass inclusion of women in elected offices. While we saw an overwhelming number of female candidates this year, we are still far behind the 50 percent mark of equality in representation.

When I ask my female students at Salem College what they want to do, almost every one of them says that they want to provide more opportunities for people. This surely should be a goal of the elected representative. This commitment to improving the lives of others should be the feature that voters look to rather than a commitment to demonizing and weakening opponents or social groups who do not share the candidates’ values.

As I prepare to teach an upcoming semester of Gender, Politics and Policy, I hope my students will be more likely to say they want to run for political office. This election has yielded a cohort of winning female role models who are as diverse and dedicated to their role as public servants as are my students.

Elizabeth Wemlinger is assistant professor of political science and public policy at Salem College in Winston-Salem.
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