why don’t american women run for office?

Jamelle Bouie — in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, in turn responding to a Daily Beast article by Dana Goldstein — tackles the gender gap in American politics by bringing up Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox’s excellent work on political ambition. Bouie does a nice job summarizing the main points of their research, but I want to highlight their fine book, It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Perhaps one of the most immediately striking parts is the opening chapter, which provides a few excellent anecdotes suggestive of the empirical evidence to come.

They talk to four “eligible” candidates for political office, two women and two men who by all accounts are qualified to be politicians someday: well-educated, professional class types closely engaged with their local communities. But when asked if they themselves feel qualified to run, a striking gender gap emerges: “Lord no,” one woman replies. “Absolutely not. I’d never run,” says the other.

But the men take the opposite approach. “Yes; I am much smarter and a lot more honest than the people currently in office,” one man responds. Perhaps more tellingly, the other states, “I am a quick study. People tell me I should run all the time.”

Men and women with similar backgrounds, in other words, possess far different understandings of themselves as potential politicians. And in many ways, this is more difficult to remedy than, say, blatantly sexist de jure gender discrimination.

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