Michelle Obama Embodies the Reasons Women Don't Run for Office

Feb 8, 2012Bryce Covert

They don't feel confident. No one tells them to run. Sexism plagues female candidates. Michelle Obama faced all of these problems and decided to stay out.

Get ready for yet another "Year of the Woman." It seems that every election cycle since 1992 has been thus dubbed, no matter the fluctuating results of actually getting more women into office. In fact the last "Year of the Woman" -- 2010 -- actually represented the first dip in the percentage of women in Congress since 1978. There are some promising signs for this year: 10 female candidates from both parties are running for the Senate this year. Half of the Democrats' 76 House races will run female candidates.

Yet as a study on why so few women are in politics, "Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics," points out, "women, assuming they win their primaries, will still compete in fewer than one-third of all races." So even in the best-case scenario women's political representation only stands to rise about one or two percentage points. That's because our progress has recently stalled in getting more women into office. Eighty-four percent of congressional members are men; three-quarters of officials and legislators at the state and local level are men; women hold only 12 percent of governorships and 8 percent of mayoralties.

Why this persistent gap in representation? The authors of "Men Rule" found that it all gets back to women lacking the desire to run. Despite the fact that women are just as successful as men when they do, and despite high profile women like Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton getting into the mix, women don't run. "There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition; men tend to have it, and women don't," they write. They found seven key factors that lead women to be wary:

1. Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.

2. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin's candidacies aggravated women's perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena.

3. Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.

4. Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.

5. Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.

6. Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office -- from anyone.

7. Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.

These factors have led to a "persistent and unchanging" gap in appetite for running: men are 16 percentage points more likely than women to have considered it.

But can we find a living, breathing incarnation of this research? If women are shying away from office, can we ever know who they are? Turns out we can. After reading Jodi Kantor's new book on the first couple, The Obamas, it's clear that Michelle stayed away from running for office herself for most of the reasons listed above.

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An ongoing theme throughout Kantor's book is the differing views of politics between Michelle and Barack. Barack thinks he should join the system in order to change it; Michelle thinks you have to work outside the system for real change. That plays right into the problem of women reacting negatively to modern campaigns -- and by definition, modern politics. The system doesn't seem like it's going to work for them. As Kantor writes, "Barack saw the same problems with politics as Michelle did. But for him, those weren't reasons to stay out; they were reasons to get in. He believed in his own talent and singularity; he felt sure that the usual rules would not apply." Michelle remains suspicious of DC and all it represents.

That quote also illuminates a difference between their self-confidence: another theme in the book is Barack's -- and Michelle's -- belief that he is a historical, transformative figure. But Michelle doesn't seem to have the same idea about herself. This is just like the women who don't think they're qualified enough to run, compared to most men who just plunge in, thinking they're perfectly qualified. Michelle is keenly aware of and concerned about the problems facing this country, yet Kantor writes, "She viewed the events of the presidency more as an outsider, her aides said... But Michelle Obama knew and cared a great deal about what was going on in the United States."

One reason women may feel less self-confident is they don't have people around them boosting their egos. As the study reports, women are less likely to have people tell them they should run. And no one seems to have told Michelle. Ann Marie Lipinski, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, remembers, "Over the years, many Chicagoans thought Michelle showed just as much promise as her husband did; maybe more. 'If someone said to me, one of them is going to grow up to be president, I may have bet on her.'" Yet there's no mention of people urging her to run.

And Michelle doesn't seem to have much appetite for jumping into the fray anyway -- she's seen what happened to those who came before her. The study found women have picked up on the cloud of gender bias hanging over Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, and the treatment of Clinton did not get past Michelle. "The first lady told an aide that she did not want to get drawn into the policy details [of the administration]," Kantor writes. "'I don't want to be Hillary Clinton, I can't be that person,' she said, referring to the criticism her predecessor had earned for taking charge of her husband's failed reform efforts."

On top of all of this, even if some women did have the appetite to run they'd have a hard time balancing it with childcare and household chores. And, sadly, that is still overwhelmingly a woman's province. Michelle is no exception, even if she has a law degree from Harvard. During her husband's early campaigns, "She worried that her husband was not home enough, that campaign staff weren't... helping her get to a campaign event and then home again to feed her kids." The kids and the house were her concern. She herself has noticed this difference. "What I notice about men, all men, is that their order is me, my family, God is in there somewhere, but me is first. And for women, me is fourth, and that's not healthy," Kantor quotes her. Yet it's still pretty inescapable.

So what are the answers? How do we reach the Michelle Obamas and convince them to run? Because that will be the only real way to make substantial progress on the gender gap in political representation. The study ends with some suggestions for how to overcome this dilemma. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that we have to recruit women -- early and often -- to foster their ambition. If women are told to run, and told that they'll be successful at it, from early on it will help boost that desire and confidence. We can also spread the word that women succeed when they run just as much as men do, and we can work with them to help with the personal trade-offs that come with campaigning. And of course, as is the case with many issues facing women, helping them deal with work-family balance comes back to implementing work-family policies.

We have to figure it out. We've been left behind by 90 other nations in the percentage of women in our national legislature. It doesn't serve the women or men who live in this country to be represented by only one half of our population.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

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