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Did Jeannette Rankin inspire other women to enter politics?

When viable female candidates run for major offices currently held by men, women became significantly more politically engaged in politics.

Donald Trump Delivers Address To Joint Session Of Congress
As President Donald Trump arrives to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress, members of congress wear white to honor the women's suffrage movement and support women's rights, February 28, 2017.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

This week, Mischiefs of Faction is hosting a symposium to celebrate the centennial of Jeannette Rankin becoming the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives. Our first post provides a biographical sketch of Rankin’s career, and the second post highlights the underappreciated role of women’s groups in American policymaking.

As other authors in this symposium highlight, the presence of women in campaigns and elected offices has multiple effects on our political system, ranging from increased political legitimacy to transformed political processes, issue debates, and policy outcomes in the US.

Women politicians also might encourage political engagement by other women and young girls, what we’ve termed the “role model effect.” When Hillary Clinton clinched the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in June 2016 — another important first for women in politics — she tweeted out a picture of herself dancing with a young girl. The tweet, signed by Clinton herself, read: “To every little girl who dreams big: Yes, you can be anything you want — even president. Tonight is for you.”

Both political observers and political practitioners have long expected that by countering the traditional view that politics is a man’s game, the presence of women in prominent political roles would inspire other women and young girls to greater engagement with politics as well. Yet the empirical evidence in support of this expectation has been mixed; some studies find women’s political engagement increases with female candidates, while others do not.

Our recent research suggests that being first, like Jeannette Rankin, may be important for role model effects. We looked at female candidates for major offices — US House, US Senate, and governor — to determine if the presence of female candidates affected women’s political engagement. We employed a panel survey — a study that interviews the same people at multiple points in time — in order to ascertain if individual citizens became more politically engaged if they experienced a female candidate in their district or state.

Like other studies, we focused on viable candidates, candidates who won or came reasonably close to doing so. Unlike previous studies, we also narrowed our analysis to female candidates who were new. Our logic was straightforward: A woman running for reelection to an office she has held, perhaps for many years, is unlikely to disrupt citizens’ views of women as political actors. Such female candidates are likely familiar and accepted by their constituents — even those who support another party.

However, when a district or state experiences a woman running for a major political office held by a man, citizens shift from a situation in which they are seeing no or very few women in politics to an election featuring a competitive female candidate. This, we hypothesized, would help encourage greater engagement among women, and young women in particular. Being first would be key to the role model effect.

Our data supports that expectation: As the figure below shows, we found that where viable female candidates ran for major offices currently held by men, women became significantly more politically engaged in politics.

Effect of a viable female candidate on engagement in politics.

Importantly, however, we only found this effect among younger women (specifically, under 30). Older women’s engagement did not change in response to the presence of female politicians. This is consistent with what we know about political socialization: Older citizens are more likely to be set in their political attitudes and practices, but younger citizens are still learning about the political world and determining their own place in it.

It is those younger women who we find respond to the presence of new female politicians by becoming more politically engaged. This also is consistent with our previous work finding that media coverage that not only talked about female politicians but specifically highlighted how unusual and unique they were was associated with increased interest in political activism among adolescent girls.

Might we expect that Jeannette Rankin’s campaign and election to the House in 1916 had a similar impact on the political engagement of young women? Unfortunately, to answer that question requires accurate public opinion polls, which had not yet been invented in 1916. If we try to transport our findings back a century, the best we can say is that Rankin’s election certainly had the characteristics — a successful candidate running for an office that had always been held by men — conducive to a positive impact on the political engagement of younger women. Importantly, women in Rankin’s home state of Montana already had the right to put that engagement into action at the ballot box; Montana granted suffrage to women in 1914.

What about today? In 2017, women comprise just 20 percent of the membership of the US House and Senate, nearly 25 percent of state legislators nationwide, and only 8 percent of governors. Reports indicate that one result of the 2016 election is more and more women are planning to run for office. The continued inequality in women’s representation means there are still many opportunities for women to be new candidates — running for a seat held by a man, just as Rankin did.

At the same time, with increasing numbers of prominent political women — Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Carly Fiorina, and Sarah Palin, to name just a few — we might wonder if the public is beginning to view female politicians as “normal” and that as a result, women running for office will no longer have a unique effect on the engagement of women and girls in the future. Perhaps ironically, the more that women run for, and win, elective office, the less likely we may be to find a role model effect, as female politicians are no longer viewed as unusual or new.

Our guess is that this — the declining uniqueness of female candidates — is a price Jeannette Rankin would be willing to pay to see many more women join her in the ranks of elected officeholders in the United States.

Christina Wolbrecht is an associate professor of political science and David Campbell is the Packey J. Dee professor of American democracy, both at the University of Notre Dame.