Seeing Women Run For Office Makes Girls Feel Better About Politics

Supermajority Education Fund

November 29, 2019

A new survey by the Washington Post reveals the effect of young women seeing women candidates run for elected office. While the results of the 2016 election negatively impacted girls’ faith in the government’s ability to help people — especially those who identify as Democrats — their faith rebounded after a slew of high profile women candidates won seats in Congress after the 2018 midterm elections.

To gather their data, researchers David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht first sent out a questionnaire to 997 American teenagers between the ages of 15-18 in 2016 during the height of the 2016 campaign season. At that time, 37 percent of Democratic girls said that the political system benefited people with genuine needs. A year later, that number fell by 20 percentage points. But when the researchers returned to the same students in 2018 after the midterm election, they found 30 percent of girls reaffirmed their belief in democracy. What’s more, Campbell and Wolbrecht found that the jump in enthusiasm about the political process in 2018 could be attributed to girls who lived in areas where one or more women ran in Congressional and Gubernatorial races. 

In contrast, Republican girls displayed no substantial increase in faith in democracy between 2016 and 2018 and Republican boys saw a decrease in faith during that time. Like their female counterparts, Democratic boys also experienced a rise in support for democracy in 2018, but not to the same degree.

For Debbie Walsh, the director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, the findings come as no surprise. “For girls and young women to aspire to political office, you have to see women in office,” Walsh told Supermajority News. “And faith in democracy comes from seeing that they could have a voice in the future of the democracy.”

Walsh added that researchers at CAWP had anecdotally found the survey’s findings to be true for years. “We’re trying to make leadership visible to young girls,” she said. As for boys, “we want to show that public leaders can look like their mothers as well as their fathers.”

But Walsh notes that one gap the Washington Post survey highlights is the lack of female role models for Republican girls. While young Democrats witnessed a rise in diverse voices and more female elected officials in 2018, “Republican women aren’t having that experience.” In fact, the survey found that there were fewer women running on the GOP ticket in 2018 than in years prior and those that did run were less likely to highlight gender issues or talk about their experiences as American women.

So what could these findings could mean for the 2020 election? For Walsh, the answer to that question lies in whether young people can continue to find role models in the political process. “It’s important we get young people at a very young age to see that they have a voice and that they can have an impact,” she said.