Shauna Lani Shames
Understanding political ambition in an intersectional way requires some familiarity with both subjects. Intersectionality is first explored as a concept and practice, and then the discussion turns to an explanation of political ambition (in multiple forms). In addition, intersectionality can be applied to the theory and research on political ambition, particularly in the context of candidate emergence.
Since Crenshaw’s article, and especially after 2000, the term intersectionality and the concept that it defines have become a central part of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies in academic circles and of feminist movement organizations in the real world. Although the term originally referred to the intersection of race with gender, it has expanded to include other forms of identity. The central metaphor for the concept as it has come to be used could be seen as the asterisk; each of us has a multiplicity of identities (race and gender, but also age, class, religion, sexual orientation, ability/disability, and more). The “self,” or subject, lies at the intersection of these many axes of identity.
Difficulties continue to arise, however, in finding coherence in both theoretical and empirical works adopting an intersectional perspective. Should the concept be tied to its original understanding of the overlap between race and gender? Which race? With each additional axis of identity that we examine in a scholarly way, we gain specificity, but perhaps lose some generalizability. Taking into consideration all aspects of identity that define a whole person would be nearly impossible across any group. (Even a collection of young gay male Native Americans, say, would likely have all kind of differences that go far beyond their initial similarities.) Pushed to its logical extreme, the concept of intersectionality can threaten a feminist politics that seeks to take the “women” group as its subject.
Turning to women as political candidates, a growing number of studies examine gender and political ambition, particularly in the context of candidate emergence (with a smaller but also growing subset looking at a second type of political ambition, progressive, referring to the decision to run for higher office once someone is already in office.
Multiple works agree that women’s initial and progressive political ambition are lower than their comparable male counterparts’ levels, and such works give us valuable hypotheses and evidence about the reasons for this gender gap. Recent studies have begun to examine race as well as gender in order to perform studies of political ambition that are intersectional in approach and methodology, although these are limited in number, often due to the small numbers of women of color as candidates and elected officials. However, this article profiles some of the excellent work being done on this topic.
By first looking at previous thinking and empirical work on intersectionality, doing the same for political ambition, and then bringing together these two fields of study, this article addresses the theoretical and empirical issues involved in studying political ambition in an intersectional way. In particular, at this point in the study of political ambition, it is crucial that we see more studies examining the different types of identification that make up intersectionality, how they can fit together, and how this overlap can affect women’s political ambition. Although this article is focused on American women, as they are the subject of much of the intersectionality and political ambition literature, this framework can be used more broadly by scholars studying women outside of the United States, who would certainly face many of the same challenges and questions.