February 15, 2020

Why women don’t run for public office – and what may fuel change

“The good news and bad news. What do you want first?” asked Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, director of civic engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

“The bad news is …. we are 50% of the population … yet women make up on average 23% of our elected offices.”

“That, to me, is ludicrous,” she said.

The good news is that “we have been outvoting men for the past 30 years.”

DeFrancesco Soto said that 8 to 10 million more women than men have voted in the last few presidential elections.

Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, director of civic engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, director of civic engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

American Bar Association photo

The professor was a panelist at the program, “Vote. Run. Lead. 100 Years of Women in Politics,” held Feb. 14 at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas.

After women started voting after 1920, the only women you saw in Congress were widows succeeding their husbands, DeFrancesco Soto said. It was not until 1992, “the Year of the Woman,” that women came close to the 20% rate in Congress. “Then we leveled off, and for the past couple of decades we’ve been plateaued, and for me that’s ‘the ugly’,” she said.

Among the reasons women don’t run for office, DeFrancesco Soto said:

  • Incumbency (“in the U.S., incumbency rates are upward of 90%,” she said)
  • Money (women still do not earn as much as their male counterparts and they also don’t have as high a net worth)
  • Lack of resources
  • Fear
  • Social perceptions, even as polls show the electorate willing to elect a woman president, there is still a hyper focus on the woman by the media (what they’re wearing, their hair, etc.)
  • Family considerations (women still carry most of the weight within the family)

On the upside, DeFrancesco Soto said, organizations like She Should Run, a nonpartisan, nonprofit working to dramatically increase the number of women considering a run for office, can mitigate some of these challenges.

Another piece of the puzzle that’s very important, she said, “is anger and frustration.”

The biggest spikes in women running for office were in 1992 after Anita Hill appeared before the Clarence Thomas hearings, and in 2018 “following everything that went on in 2017.” Likewise, there was a spike in Republican women elected to office in 2010 after frustration with the Obama administration.

So the silver lining “to the ugliness in our political landscape,” she said, is harnessing that anger and frustration and “using that to fuel your desire to run for office.”

DeFrancesco Soto said the LBJ School is about to launch a “nonpartisan campaign school later this year,” modeled after the Campaign School at Yale University. It’s for those who have finished taking advantage of resources like She Should Run and have made the decision to run. “We take them for a couple of days and give them in-depth training.”

And women need not fear running and losing, she said, “If you lose, that’s okay. Most men lose a lot, but they don’t let it get to them.” She pointed to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who recently noted in a presidential debate that she and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) were the only candidates (as well as the only women) on the stage who had never lost an election.

“Politics is a long game,” DeFrancesco Soto said and noted the importance of building both name recognition and a network, regardless of the electoral outcome.

The calculus of whether or not to run for office is a bit different for women of color and LGBTQ candidates, she said. Those people tend to be “supremely qualified” for the offices they run for because “institutional and societal barriers” that make it so that when these candidates decide to run “it’s not just because she’s 100% qualified, she’s 150% qualified.” DeFrancesco Soto said she didn’t think women should wait until they’re 150% qualified, but more like 60-70% qualified, “which would put us on par with male counterparts.”

DeFrancesco Soto was joined on the panel by moderator Sharon Sayles-Belton, former mayor of Minneapolis; Judge Eva Guzman of the Supreme Court of Texas; and Kaitlyn Newman, donor relations and partnerships manager at She Should Run. The program, part of the Present and Powerful Speaker Series, was sponsored by the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division and the Law Practice Division.