Role models: Only some female politicians encourage other women to get political

The presence of high-profile women as candidates for public office encourages young American women to become more involved in politics, but primarily when those candidates are Democrats, according to a study published in Political Research Quarterly.

In recent years, an increasing number of prominent female politicians have stepped onto the national stage, with figures like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi among Democrats and Sarah Palin and Carly Fiorina among Republicans. Whether high-profile women such as these will serve as role-models encouraging greater political participation among female voters remains an open question.

A new study led by Mack Mariani, of Xavier University, examined two sources of political opinion data for evidence of a gender-based role-model effect at the national and state levels.

First, using an annual survey of American 12th-graders with a total of half a million participants, changes in young women’s engagement in the political process (including volunteering for a campaign, writing to a public official, or giving money to a candidate) relative to that of young men were charted from 1975 to 2011.

The authors found spikes in young women’s political involvement in 1984, 1993, and 2007. These spikes coincided with the nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as candidate for Vice President, the “year of the woman” election of 1992 which saw victories of an unprecedented number of female candidates in the US Senate, and the anticipated presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton and installation of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the US House of Representatives. However, only Democratic-leaning young women became more involved during these periods, while Republican-leaning young women remained only as involved as in other years.

“Although Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and Pelosi’s speakership were associated with a rise in political involvement among young women who shared their politics, Palin’s candidacy did not move conservative or Republican women in the same way,” the researchers said. “We think this finding may reflect differences in the way prospective female role models project themselves, the issues they focus on, or the rhetoric they employ.”

Next, the presence of a role model effect at the state level was examined with a survey of 1,861 young adults. The study authors looked at whether young women were more likely to be involved in the political process in states where the viable candidates for statewide offices included women. At this level, there was no evidence that young women as a whole were more involved in states where women were running for office.

In contrast to results at the national level, this analysis showed that the presence of a female Democratic candidate for statewide office seemed to encourage young Republican women to get more involved, but had no impact on political involvement for young Democratic women.

The study authors conclude that “ideology and partisanship influence role-model effects, sometimes in unexpected ways.” Republican women candidates seem to do little to energize female political participation. Democratic female candidates for national office appear to serve as role-models for young women’s participation in their own party, whereas state-level female Democratic candidates seem to do more to instigate engagement among their opponents. As more women enter high-profile political races, these trends may have increasingly important implications for election outcomes.