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When Congress convenes in January of 2013, it will boast a record number of women. Women’s representation in Congress will rise from just under 17 percent to almost 19 percent, with 81 women elected into the U.S. House and 20 serving in the U.S. Senate. Gains in female representation were made on the state level as well. “New Hampshire will be the first state to send an all-female delegation to Congress,” as it has a female governor, two female U.S. senators and two female U.S. House representatives. In electing Democrat Katrina Shealy to the South Carolina Senate, there is no longer an all-male state legislative chamber anywhere in the country. Four other states—Hawaii, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Wisconsin—also elected women to the Senate for the first time. With 2012 touting the largest female representation at the federal level in history, I wanted to learn why women are so underrepresented in the political realm. Additionally, are there any factors that have precluded or obstructed women from running for office?

As Laurel Elder states in her article Why Women Don’t Run, “women spent the rest of the 20th century, and now the 21st century, catching up to men in terms of political participation. Despite tremendous progress in areas such as voter turnout, one arena where women’s political participation lags far behind that of men is holding political office.” Most scholarly research suggests that women are underrepresented in Congress because they choose not to run. One hypothesis Elder puts forth to explain a lack of female representation in public office is called the gender role attitudes hypothesis. While many of us assume the days of gender stereotyping are long gone, the belief in women assuming “traditional roles” may still be one factor, according to Elder, that contributes to women “being less inclined to run for political office or less likely to be tapped by others to run.”  Another hypothesis called the structural hypothesis references a “gender gap in the resources facilitat[ing] political activity such as education, income and employment.” Elder goes on to state that women are consistently underrepresented in the “eligibility pool,” which possesses the types of careers political candidates are typically drawn from. The situational hypothesis as put forth by Elder argues that the lifestyle often pursued by women, such as raising a family, restricts them from the opportunity to fully participate in politics. Women are less willing than men to “get involved in politics when it will cause stress in their family life.” Lastly, the role model hypothesis suggests that “girls see little reason to become interested in politics or harbor political aspirations” when there are so few women holding visible, national political offices.

In an addition to these obstacles women face, an article written by Jennifer Lawless and Kathryn Pearson suggests that our nation’s candidate-centered primary election acts as a hurdle, providing greater challenges for a woman’s entrance into public office than for a man. They state that the candidate-centered congressional primary involves reliance on skills typically “impressed upon men but discouraged among women.” For example, men are encouraged to be “confident, assertive, and self-promoting…while the overarching male exclusiveness of most political institutions leave an imprint that suggests to women that it is often inappropriate to possess these characteristics.” Lawless and Pearson go on to suggest that women are less likely than men to be “recruited to participate in politics.” Women are less likely than men to “receive encouragement and support to run for office from elected officials” which falls in line with Elder’s structural hypothesis stated earlier. Additionally, Lawless and Pearson believe that because women are underrepresented in the “eligibility pool,” women candidates have “less name recognition and credibility than men” so when announcing their candidacies, must work harder to cover the same amount of ground.

Given that the institutional design of the political system serves as a barrier to women gaining office, why is it that women experienced such success in this past election? Perhaps they were particularly motivated to run given the commentary on sexual assault, women’s reproductive systems and abortion rights. Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Tom Smith, and Steve King are just a few candidates who made questionable and offensive comments pertaining to women’s issues. Contributing to the basis of why many women succeeded this past election is the fact that Congress lost 10 pro-life representatives, while gaining 18 pro-choice members. Additionally, the “wave of women [in Congress] was disproportionately Democratic, powered by an electorate galvanized behind President Obama.” Overwhelmingly, women supported Obama in this election at a rate of 56 percent to 44 percent and were eager to support “the expansion of economic opportunity for women as well as access to health care.” According to Gallup, this 20-point gender gap “is the largest Gallup has measured in a presidential election since it began compiling the vote by major subgroups in 1952.”

Out-of-touch commentary by male politicians and a large proportion of female voters created conditions for women to achieve sweeping electoral success on November 6th. Women experienced greater success in 2012 due to dissatisfaction in the choices and decisions made by those who failed to represent them demographically. In addition to women needing to challenge their political opponents, they must also confront the barriers put in place by society including gender stereotypes, familial restrictions, access to fewer resources and an unfair primary system. Nonetheless, women are proving that they have what it takes to overcome the system and ascend to the top.

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