Women in politics broke barriers this year—from Kamala Harris’s historic Vice-Presidential election to the record…
Women are making history in all-female races for governor—but that doesn’t mean sexism is over.
Voters in five states will find an unusual sight on their ballots this year: only women major party candidates for governor. In Alabama, Arizona, Iowa, Michigan, and Oregon, voters will weigh not whether to choose a woman, but which woman to elect to their statehouse’s corner office.
In the history of the country, there have only been four gubernatorial races without male candidates. I know, that is hard to believe. Having five this year is a reason to celebrate, especially given how severely underrepresented women have historically been in the governors’ office (the nine women governors currently serving are just 18% of all governors in the country, for one). But it does not mean that we’ve conquered gender biases and sexism in politics—in fact, research from our nonpartisan Foundation this year found that biases can be even more pronounced in races without male candidates.
In over 20 years of studying women candidates, voters have shown us time and again that they hold women to higher standards than men when weighing candidates for executive office such as mayor, governor, and president. For one, women must prove they are qualified for governor; men can simply release their resumes. And voters will vote for a male candidate for governor who they do not like, if they believe he is qualified. They will not do the same for a woman.
These standards are amplified for women of color, perhaps most clearly illustrated by the fact that there has never been a Black woman governor in this country; there have been only two Latina governors (Susana Martinez and Michelle Lujan Grisham); Nikki Haley is the only Asian American/Pacific Islander woman who has served as governor.
When we took men out of the equation and studied woman vs. woman races for governor, I hoped that we would see those gendered standards disappear. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Voters in our focus groups responded to races between two women candidates by doubling down on gendered standards: voters demanded that both women demonstrate why they were qualified. Both women had to consider likeability.
The 2022 climate also plays an important role in these races: in our research, political party strongly influenced how voters viewed the candidates. Voters assigned different advantages to women who identified as Democrats (on issues of race, healthcare, housing, and Covid-19, for example) or Republicans (on issues such as the economy, crime, taxes, and immigration). And voters were hyper-focused on women candidates’ appearances in all-women races. Women candidates have always had to surmount high standards around appearance—but in today’s culture of Zoom and Instagram filters, that focus was even more pronounced. Participants in our focus groups noticed if a hypothetical woman candidate had a stray hair out of a place or a wrinkle on her collar. Finally, voters were less interested in a woman candidate’s personal life than in our previous studies—instead, voters want to see how a woman’s experiences prove that she will make a positive impact for them personally.
It’s been 36 years since Helen Boosalis and Kay Orr ran for governor of Nebraska and marked the first time that two women faced off for the role in our country’s history. There’s still so much progress to be made—including breaking down the high barriers that women face even when they aren’t running against a man. But the fact that I have tuned in to multiple debates between only women candidates over the last few weeks—Governor Kim Reynolds and Deidre DeJear in Iowa; Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Tudor Dixon in Michigan; Christine Drazan, Tina Kotek, and Betsy Johnson in Oregon—means we are heading in the right direction.
It’s refreshing, and long overdue, to see the opposite of a “token woman” on these debate stages, and instead to watch multiple qualified, capable women candidates share their visions for their state. As my boss Barbara Lee would say, it’s something we see men do all the time.