Almost a year after Donald Trump’s election to the Oval Office, Democrats continue to tout what they see as a silver lining of his victory: record numbers of women deciding to run for office. Emily’s List, a group that helps elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, reported in August that more than 16,000 women had expressed interest in running since Trump won, and Emerge America, a group that recruits and trains Democratic women, said last month it had seen an 87 percent increase in applications to its programs. In July, She Should Run, a nonpartisan organization devoted to helping more women attain public office, launched a campaign to spur 250,000 women to run for office by 2030.
But a new Cosmopolitan/SurveyMonkey poll found that women between the ages of 18 and 34 were about equally likely to say the 2016 election made them less likely to run for office as they were to say the election inspired them to run. Eighteen percent of young women said the election made them less likely to run, while 16 percent said the election made them more likely to run. The survey of 3,813 randomly selected adults ages 18 and older found that the 2016 election had a similar effect on women overall. Fifteen percent of women overall said they’re less likely to consider running for office because of the election, while 10 percent said they were more likely to consider running.
And men were substantially more enthusiastic than women about the prospect of starting a political campaign: 17 percent said the 2016 election made them more likely to consider running for office, compared to 10 percent of women. This split was particularly pronounced among Democrats: 23 percent of Democratic men said the election made them more likely to consider running for office, compared to 13 percent of Democratic women.
Deborah Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, noted that these results don’t diminish the fact that far more women are expressing interest in elected office than they have in the past. Walsh pointed to 2017 state legislative race in Virginia, where 26 Democratic women are running as challengers to incumbents, up from 8 in the last election cycle. But she added that women still face a “catch-22” when it comes to running for elected office. Research shows that they’re likelier than men to need to be recruited for office, rather than deciding to run for office on their own — but they’re also less likely than men to get recruited.
Some women may be reluctant to throw their hat into the ring because of their perception that female politicians are held to a higher standard than their male counterparts — a perspective that many men do not seem to share. In the survey, 72 percent of women said they believe it’s harder for a woman to get elected than a man, while only 1 percent said it’s harder for a man, and 26 percent said gender doesn’t make a difference. Slightly less than half (49 percent) of men, by contrast, said it’s harder for a woman to get elected than a man, while 47 percent said gender doesn’t make a difference. (For the record, 2 percent of men said it’s harder for a man to get elected.) Younger women were particularly likely to perceive barriers for female politicians: 79 percent of women between the ages of 18 and 34 said it was harder for a woman to get elected, compared to 69 percent of women between the ages of 35 and 64.
“I wouldn’t want to be in the position of a woman in elected office, because if I did something wrong, people would say, ‘Oh, women can’t do that job,’” said Velyce O’Neal, 24, who lives in Nebraska. She said she faces sexism every day in her job as forklift operator, but that’s nothing, she said, compared to politics. “You can be twice as good as the man you’re running against, and they’ll still find fault with you and not him. I think about Hillary — she was up against Trump, who had no experience at all, and yet somehow she was the one struggling to be taken seriously.”
Lack of interest, rather than fear of discrimination, was the primary reason that women surveyed said they wouldn’t consider running. Forty percent of women, compared to 28 percent of men, said that their biggest barrier to running was lack of interest. But in follow-up interviews, several respondents admitted that gender was also a factor.
Ariel Dye, 27, lives in California and said that she’s been intrigued by the idea of holding a political office since she served as her high school class president. But she said the election brought home just how difficult politics can be for women — and especially women of color. “I feel like it’s something I should think about doing as a black women because we’re so underrepresented,” she said. “But realistically, with this combative political climate, I don’t think the country would be receptive to someone like me.”
Other women chalked up their disinterest in political campaigning to a simple desire to avoid the spotlight. “I want to remain politically active, but I don’t think actually being a politician is the right role for me,” said Courtney Bierman, 21, of Nebraska. “I’ve never been someone who wants to be famous. I hate the idea of having my life dissected and judged.” Alla Sheynkin, 34, who lives in New York City, said that she’s gotten more involved since the election by donating to political causes she supports and attending rallies, but she also can’t imagine putting herself out there as a candidate. “A lot of people that I support say, ‘Get out there, run for office, we need people like you in the local government,’” she said. “But I don’t take that literally, that I have to be the one running for office. I just think there are people who are much better suited.”
Even women involved in local political activism say they don’t plan to take the next step. Feeling depressed and anxious about the country’s future, Julie Garbus, 53, decided to hold a meeting last November for other people in her Colorado town who wanted to take action against then-President-elect Donald Trump’s agenda. They ran letter-writing campaigns and voter-registration drives, sponsored environmental-awareness programs, and held town halls, and the group’s membership soon grew to more than 600. “It’s strange to say it, but Trump getting elected made me realize I could be a community leader,” Garbus said.
Running for office, however, does not appeal to her. “Campaigning takes a ton of time, and I think it’s better to save that energy for activism and supporting others in my community who want to run,” she said.
The desire to work on at the community level — rather than the national political stage — was common even among women who were serious about running for political office. Men who are considering running for office are likelier than women to say they’re interested in federal office (41 percent vs. 31 percent), while women considering a run for office are slightly likelier than men to say they’re interested in local office (79 percent vs. 71 percent).
Tracy Stohlman, 47, who lives in Virginia, recently worked on a friend’s local election campaign and said that this experience — combined with her frustration at the outcome of the 2016 presidential election — made her think seriously about running for office, but she expressed skepticism about the state or federal government’s ability to positively affect her community. “I think you can make change locally,” she said. “Higher-level politics has become so cutthroat and mean, it really feels more about keeping politicians in office than doing anything for the people.” Local politics, she believes, tends to be friendlier to female candidates.
Many women also said that they would need local political experience and connections before launching a campaign for state or national office. “I’m not sure how else you get your name out there and build up your experience,” said Lisa Pajac, 58, who lives in Wisconsin. “You can’t just say you’re running for Congress if nobody knows who you are.”
The idea that women feel the need to be more qualified and prepared than their male counterparts wasn’t surprising to Walsh, who said that women are often encouraged to start small and work their way up the ladder, rather than trying to get involved at a higher level from the start. “It’s unfortunately true that women do have to prove their qualifications in a way that men don’t,” Walsh said. Many women, she added, wait until their children are out of the house before launching a campaign. “Women are working full-time, they’re often serving as the full-time caregiver, and a lot of them feel like they can’t take on something like the state legislature, which is effectively a third full-time job,” she said.
Despite a general sense of concern about the political system’s hospitality to female candidates, the women surveyed were equally optimistic as the men about the prospect of having the country’s first woman president in the next decade. More than half of women believe the U.S. will have its first female president in either 2020 (26 percent) or 2024 (30 percent), compared to a similar number of men (19 percent for 2020, and 35 percent for 2024).
But when asked who they thought a winning female candidate could be, many women hesitated. A surprising number said Michelle Obama could be a promising candidate, even though she has expressed no interest in running. “I think it could be Michelle Obama, although I wouldn’t be happy about it,” said Linda Heitkamp, 46, who lives in South Dakota, identifies as a political conservative, and voted for Trump.
Other women mentioned Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris, two prominent senators who made headlines earlier this year after they were interrupted during Senate confirmation hearings or testimony, but often dismissed them in the same breath. “Elizabeth Warren is wonderful, but she’s getting older, and I don’t think she could speak to moderates,” Julie Garbus said. “And Kamala Harris is just so new on the scene. It seems like she needs more time before she’ll be viable as a presidential candidate.”
Richa Namballa, 23, lives in California and said she’s hoping for a strong female candidate in 2024, because she doesn’t think a woman could win against Trump. “It’s discouraging to say, but it just feels like people aren’t going to be ready for a woman in four years,” she said. She’s thought about political office, but that’s one of the reasons she feels comfortable putting off any decisions about running until she’s older. “It seems like by the time I have more experience to contribute, in maybe ten or twenty years, we’ll probably still have a need for more women in politics.”