Are feminists helping women achieve political office?
Consider three realities: first, women are severely underrepresented in United States politics. Men currently hold 80 percent of seats in the Senate, 80.7 percent of seats in the House of Representatives, 76 percent of state legislative seats, and 81 mayoral seats of the 100 largest US cities.[i] And from 1998 and 2014, the US fell from 59th to 98th in the world in terms of percentage of women in national legislature.[ii]
Second, feminists want more women in US politics, and devote sizeable amounts of time and money to this goal. [iii]
Third, people in the United States generally do not like feminists. If asked to say the first thing that comes to mind upon hearing the word “feminist,” more than half of Americans would respond with some combination of the following: bossy, man-hating, sex-hating, feminazi, unhygienic, ugly, uptight, angry, harsh, strident, demanding, dogmatic, bra-burning crazy, lesbian, radical, unjustifiably derogatory toward men, and disrespectful of mothers and housewives.[iv] One television evangelist described feminism as “a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, [and] destroy capitalism.”[v]
Synthesizing these three realities leads to the following question: if people generally dislike feminists, is it possible that feminist efforts to put more women in politics are actually hurting women’s chances of achieving office in the United States? Put differently, is the general opinion of feminism so negative that feminists are, through their efforts, actually losing more supporters of greater numbers of women in politics than they are gaining?
Until recently, only one well-documented study had tested for such a “backlash.” In it, college students were asked to interview job candidates and provide evaluations. The researchers found that students evaluated candidates less favorably who self-identified as feminists, even when those candidates did not behave in stereotypically feminist ways. In other words, self-identified feminist candidates were evaluated less favorably than non-self-identified feminist candidates with nearly identical behaviors, backgrounds, and qualifications.[vi]
Since this study was, as already mentioned, the only one of its kind, I decided to run an experiment of my own. I administered two different surveys through Amazon Turk, one testing for an individual-level backlash, and the other testing for a macro, societal-level backlash. In the first, participants were randomly assigned to read the campaign platform of one of three female political candidates, identical but for the second candidate’s support for “initiatives that benefit women,” and the third candidate’s support for “feminist initiatives that benefit women” (italics added). They then indicated how likely they were to vote for the candidate. In the second survey, participants were provided statistics on the underrepresentation of women in US politics. Some participants then read an argument for greater numbers of women in politics from a non-explicitly feminist source, while others read the same argument coming from an explicitly feminist source. Afterward, they indicated their supportiveness for seeing greater numbers of women in US politics.
The results are, unfortunately, plagued by statistical insignificance and inconclusiveness. In simpler terms, they do not tell us much—and I therefore do not find evidence of a backlash against feminism on either a candidate-to-candidate basis, or at the societal level. Furthermore, the statistical insignificance also prevents us from assuming that there is not a backlash against feminism in the United States; the results are simply inconclusive in this regard.
That said, despite not finding evidence of a backlash against feminism, analyzing subgroups of my participants did yield other significant findings. Women who read the feminist platform were 16.83 percent less likely to vote for their candidate than were members of the control group (non-explicitly feminist candidate, no mention of “initiatives that benefit women), which suggests that women are less likely to vote for female candidates explicitly associated with feminism (and the related policies that benefit women) than female candidates not explicitly associated with feminism. In the societal-level survey, Republicans who read the argument from a feminist source were 20.83 percent less supportive of greater numbers of women in politics than Republicans who read the argument from a non-explicitly feminist source. This suggests that among Republicans, arguments for greater numbers of women in politics are less effective when they come from explicitly feminist groups.
To be clear, neither of these two significant findings shows that feminist efforts are actually hurting women’s chances of entering politics. With regard to the second finding, for example, it could still be the case that feminist arguments are, in fact, increasing national support for greater numbers of women in politics, just less so than if the same arguments came from non-feminist groups.
What, then, are the implications of these findings for feminists? First and foremost, feminists should not throw in the towel on trying to put more women in office any time soon—there is simply no evidence, at this point, that their efforts are harming women’s chances. However, my study does suggest that feminists would be more effective if they improved their image, particularly among women and Republicans. While this may be obvious, it is nonetheless worth thinking about; feminists should know that the stereotypes surrounding them not only affect the way people think about feminism, but also how they respond to feminist efforts.