Why Women Lose Elections & What We Can Do To Change That

by Ellen O'Connell Whittet
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

This week's election saw several groundbreaking wins for women, including Danica Roem becoming the first out trans woman elected to public office, the first black women elected as mayors in Charlotte, North Carolina and Helena, Montana, and the election of Virginia’s first Latina delegates. As Roem tells Bustle, her win was particularly meaningful because of the message it sends to other groups that do not traditionally run. “There are millions of transgender people in this country,” she tells Bustle. “When I am called on the floor as the gentlewoman from Manassas, LGBT people everywhere will know they can succeed.”

Roem’s win, and the wins of the other women and minorities elected to office this November, was a major step, and a much needed reprieve on the anniversary of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. But, sadly, it's still not the norm. Men still run and are elected to office at much higher rates than women, and our fight for equal representation is just beginning.

So how do we replicate Tuesday’s successes for women and minorities in 2018? To find out, Bustle spoke with several women who ran for office in the past year to hear about the challenges they faced, what they learned in the process, and their ideas for getting more women elected as soon as possible.

Getting Over Sexism

Today, women make up 50.5 percent of the populace but only 19.6 percent of the House and 21 percent of the Senate, and only 12 percent of governors are women (that’s six women, total). Historically, this disparity has been tied to the fact that women don’t run for office in the same numbers that men do — a 2016 report from the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance found that in 100 city mayoral elections, less than 20 percent of candidates were women. As we’ve also learned, women are up against a wide variety of barriers when it comes to winning elections, from lack of access to “old boys' club” networks, gaps in experience, and sexist preconceptions about whether they’re capable enough to hold office.

In the case of women like Kimberly Brown, who ran for Cleveland City Council in 2017 and lost in the primaries, all of these factors can create a perfect storm for male candidates to take advantage of.

“We were the first on the ballot, and nobody could have told me we were not going to be the frontrunners,” Brown tells Bustle. Brown says she could not even go to the grocery store during the beginning of her campaign without people coming up to talk about her platform. But then, something stalled her momentum, and ultimately cost her the election: Joe Jones, her opponent, went after "these male pastors and they all jumped on board and threw money at him,” she says.

"If we have only one perspective in politics, we ignore the very real problem of inequity."

According to Brown, the pastors of her community wanted a male councilperson over a woman “regardless of his past history — his lack of education, and the fact that he had done nothing for the Ward.” They also didn’t seem to care that he had previously pled guilty on a federal mail fraud charge, and he won with 44 percent of the vote.

Brown’s experience echoes the findings of 2015 Pew Research Poll, which found that not only do 62 percent of people believe women who run for office are held to higher standards than men, but also that many believe Americans aren’t ready to elect a woman to higher office. Add that to the already pervasive issues of sexism, and you can see why so many women are hesitant about running.

Felicia Chew, who ran for City Council in Tucson, Arizona in 2016 is a single mother who struggled to find affordable childcare as she campaigned. At one point on the campaign trail, she was gobsmacked when a constituent offered her some unsolicited advice. The constituent “knew she shouldn't be saying it,” Chew tells Bustle, but still said “she had seen me on TV, and [thought] I should be wearing makeup.”

"I was criticized for being a PTA mom."

Far from being isolated incidents, the issue of how “feminine” women running for office look comes up again and again, and there’s science to back it up. In 2014, Dartmouth College released a study linking female politicians’ facial features with their success, finding that politicians with more feminine features did better at the ballot box. (Crucially, the study did not indicate a link between male candidates’ facial features and their electoral success.)

Voters don’t just feel comfortable criticizing female candidates’ looks; Carrie Cox, who ran for City Council as a Republican in Henderson, Nevada, tells Bustle felt she was minimized as a candidate because she is a mother. “Some voters assumed that because I have seven children, I had a certain set of qualifications,” she tells Bustle. “So I was criticized for being a PTA mom. I have experience as a business owner and paralegal, but that was being discounted.”

Getting The Word Out

Women running for office ran into additional issues beyond out-and-out sexism. For many new and seasoned candidates alike, starting their campaigns early enough to make an impact was an issue. Jessica Salans, who is new to politics, was a 2016 candidate for District 13 in the Los Angeles City Council, but was slow to start canvassing because she was concerned with adequately preparing volunteers.

“We knocked on nearly every door in the district,” she tells Bustle. “But we didn’t get on the ground fast enough. We should have gone door-to-door three times. If you’re not knocking on doors as soon as you decide to run, you’re not going to win.” While she ultimately lost in the primary, the conversations she was able to have in such a short time, however, gave her hope. “From knocking on those doors and talking to so many people, I believe that making personal connections can win against money.”

"Women should say, OK I’m angry, but you should be angry too."

Despite these challenges and losses, every woman Bustle spoke with agreed that it’s crucial that women keep fighting for seats at the table. “Women's perspectives are different than men's,” Chew explains. “If we have only one perspective in politics, we ignore the very real problem of inequity.” These inequalities show up in legislation related to paid leave, minimum wage, access to reproductive healthcare, gun control, and countless other policies. And they don’t consider their losses proof that women can’t win. They also have some ideas about how other women in the future can learn from their struggles, and how we can support them.

Brown, who led a successful campaign for the first female and first black mayor in Maple Heights, Ohio, and holds a masters in public administration, ultimately lost her election to a candidate who seemed far less qualified. She reflected on the double standards she faced — specifically the constant recommendations that she not come across as too aggressive. “I think of Michelle Obama saying, ‘When they go low, we go high,’ but as long as we say the rules are different, we won’t win,” says Brown. “When they come with fire, we’ve got to come with thunder. We can’t keep telling women they’re too aggressive. Women should say, OK I’m angry, but you should be angry too. I’m so angry I’m going to take you out of that seat.”

Jennifer Trevino, who ran for City Council in Fort Worth this year and was defeated in the general election in May, advises people who want to see more women in office to seek out leadership from women in our communities. “Look around and see who in your circle could be the next county commissioner or judge, and ask those people to consider running,” she tells Bustle. “Women don’t apply for jobs unless they believe they’re qualified. We should ask them and not wait for them to run.”

If anything, Tuesday’s election taught us that not all hope is lost. Victories like Roem and Ayala’s sent the signal that Democrats could pick up a house majority in 2018 — and it proved that voters do want more women in office. As Hala Ayala, who won District 51 in Virginia Tuesday night, tells Bustle, “Women have to run before they can be elected." The most important thing we can do right now is try.