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Book Review

by Jo Freeman

Where Women Run: Gender & Party in the American States
by Kira Sanbonmatsu
Published by University of Michigan Press, 2006, 250 pp.

 
In the last 35 years women have steadily increased their share of elected offices, but this increase is not spread evenly throughout the states. The feminist slogan "Where Women Run, Women Win" needs to be qualified by the fact that women don’t run everywhere. In 2005, as this book was being finished, women were 22.5 percent of all state legislators, but this ranged from 9 percent in South Carolina to 34 percent in Maryland.

In asking where women run, Sanbonmatsu is focused on the role of state political parties in the selection of candidates for the state legislature. Do party leaders recruit women as they do men? If there is more than one candidate for a party’s nomination do they try to influence who gets it? Or do they act as one more barrier to equal political opportunity?

Supported by grants and other help from the Center for the American Women and Politics at Rutgers, Sanbonmatsu interviewed more than 240 state party leaders, state legislators, activists and experts in six states and sent questionnaires to state party leaders in all of the states. She particularly concentrated on Ohio, where she lived and taught while working on this book. The other states were Alabama, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Colorado and Iowa – states representing different regions, different levels of party competition and different degrees of professionalism in their legislatures.

The author found enormous variation in how much parties actively recruited candidates for the state legislature. Some party leaders were constantly searching for good candidates to run against incumbents of the opposing party. They identified and interviewed potential candidates as much as two years before an election in order to encourage those they thought were most likely to win. They sometimes discouraged others who were thinking of running in order to avoid a primary. In other states, party leaders took a more laissez faire attitude, letting candidates choose themselves.

Party leaders don’t work in isolation. They consult with local elected officials, interest groups and community leaders. They look for people who are active, well known and well regarded, with an eye to who would appeal to the voters of a particular district. A good candidate for a rural area might not run well in an urban one.

Women’s groups are among those whom party leaders find "helpful" in identifying good prospective candidates, but not as helpful as business, labor and community groups. Of course Democrats consult more with labor, and Republicans more with business groups. Although women’s groups are not among the most important to either party, Democrats were five time more likely than Republicans to list women’s groups as helpful in recruiting.

Sanbonmatsu’s most important observation is that the political networks are still male. Even in states where party leaders are most receptive to running women, male party leaders look for candidates among the people and groups that they know best, and those are more likely to be men. It’s not that party leaders are biased against women (few consciously are) but that they often don’t see women. When the parties are the gatekeepers to candidacy, the men who run them are less likely to open the gates and invite women to enter.
Consequently women are less likely to run in states which have strong parties. In weak party environments, interest groups and individual initiative play a greater role. Of course, parties aren’t the only factors in determining where women run, but where they are strong, they are very important.

This is an academic book, with statistical studies as well as analytical explanations, but there are facts and conclusions of relevance to anyone interested in politics. Sanbonmatsu does an excellent job of integrating qualitative with quantitative methods to reach her conclusion that electing more women requires organizing outside of the parties. If you want to know why women are still less likely to run for office than men, you should read this book.

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