Intersectionality and Political Ambition
Summary and Keywords
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.
Keywords: Political ambition, ambition, candidate, candidacy, intersectional, intersectionality, race, gender, intersection, intersecting identities, identity, men of color, women of color, running for office, feminism, women’s studies
Understanding work on intersectionality and political ambition requires some background in the theory behind both concepts. In terms of empirical research, looking at each of these subjects presents certain difficulties methodologically, and thus performing empirical studies about intersectionality and political ambition can be quite challenging. It is, however, an important and exciting avenue of research, well worthy of more study. With a focus on U.S. politics, this article begins by delving into the history and literature of intersectionality, giving both a theoretical overview and some empirical examples, and then does the same for political ambition, particularly focusing on the candidate emergence stage. It then combines the two concepts, looking at how one can study political ambition in an intersectional way. The final section of the article examines possibilities for future research in this area.
Historically, feminism and women’s studies movements have sprung from a shared recognition of exclusion or oppression of women as a group and, as such, have tended to take women as their subject. Yet defining the boundaries and contours of the group can prove difficult and divisive. Who defines the group called “women”? Which women? For what purpose? Who gets left out?
In the United States, in the mid-19th century, suffragists advocated for greater rights (including the extension of the vote) for women, by which they usually meant women of European/Caucasian descent. While the conflict described by intersectionality probably was evident in earlier moments and movements, our most famous record of it in this country is when former slave Sojourner Truth supposedly chastised the delegates of the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in May 1851 for excluding her on the basis of race—“Ain’t I a woman?” she asked, noting that many of the usual stereotypes and privileges of femininity were not applied to her because of her blackness.1
All major feminist movement waves and organizations in this country have had to grapple with Truth’s immortal question. The term intersectionality itself was not popularized until Kimberlé Crenshaw used it in a law review article2 in 1991 to explain the issue with identity politics, stating that “it is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite—that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences” (Crenshaw, 1991, p. 1242). The concept of intersectionality, however, has a deep and rich history, mostly through powerful writings by black feminists. Race and gender, these thinkers have argued, are not simply additive; they are intersectional. As Wendy Smooth (2006, p. 402) points out, intersectionality requires the interaction of two parallel yet divergent areas of scholarship and activism: race and politics and women and politics. One cannot understand the experience of black women by looking at the experience of white women and adding in elements of experiences from black men. The combination of being black and female changes the experience of both race and gender for the individual. Many thinkers and activists made this point powerfully in writings in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (see, e.g., Lorde, 1984; Giddings, 1984; hooks, 1981, 2000; Combahee River Collective, 1994, and the excellent collections of essays in Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1983 and Hull, Scott, & Smith, 1982).
In 1990, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins published Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, a widely read and important analysis of the oppression and empowerment of black women, relying on scholarly examination of their experiences and words paired with critical theory. Writing 10 years after its first publication, in a preface to the second edition, Collins explained her original goals for the work: “I initially wrote Black Feminist Thought in order to help empower African-American women. I knew that when an individual Black woman’s consciousness concerning how she understands her everyday life undergoes change, she can become empowered . . . ” (Collins, 2000, p. x). But the work had a wider, collective, and scholarly purpose as well: “I suspected that African-American women had created a collective knowledge that served a similar purpose in fostering Black women’s empowerment. Black Feminist Thought aimed to document the existence of such knowledge and sketch out its contours” (Collins, 2000). Within this context, Collins takes a strong stance on what intersectionality is: the glossary in the second and later editions of the book defines this term thus:
Analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age form mutually constructing features of social organization, which shape Black women’s experiences and, in turn, are shaped by Black women.
(Collins, 2000, p. 299)
Drawing on the works of Crenshaw, Collins, the authors previously listed, and many others, 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 in feminist movement organizations. Thinkers, activists, and organizations have expanded its meaning and usage. Although the term originally referred to the intersection of race with gender, and particularly to black women, as per Collins’s definition, it is now regularly used to include other forms of identity (and sometimes incorrectly used to simply refer to overlapping categories beyond identity). A good central metaphor for the concept as it has come to be used is an asterisk; each of us has multiple 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. Theoretically, although the concept lies at the heart of much modern feminist work, it is sometimes hard to reconcile with activist efforts in its application. Should the concept be tied to its original understanding of the overlap between race and gender? Which race? What about the other axes of identity? With each additional axis of identity that academics examine in a scholarly way, we gain specificity but lose 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 would likely have all kinds 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 group called “women” as its subject. In this way, the loss of generalizability can threaten organizing potential. (“Women unite!” is a stronger organizing slogan, for example, than “Middle-class, married, Christian, Korean American women with two children unite!”) This tension between the desire for theoretical specificity and nongeneralization and the need for generalizing as a political tool persists as a central debate in women’s/gender studies circles (see, e.g., Benhabib et al., 1994; Rowe-Finkbeiner, 2004; and Schneir, 1994); for an excellent theoretical overview of how women can differ drastically in life experiences and still belong to a single category called “women,” see Young, 1994, on the concept of group-based seriality.
On the scholarly side, much work in the social sciences uses subgroup analysis, looking at identities that intersect (e.g., how different ethnic groups within the same country behave, or differences in consumer behavior based on identity). Smooth (2013, p. 2) points out that “intersectionality encourages recognition of the differences that exist among groups, moving dialogue beyond considering only the differences between groups. Originating from discontent with treatments of ‘women’ as a homogenous group, intersectionality has evolved into a theoretical research paradigm that seeks to understand the interaction of various social identities and how these interactions define societal power hierarchies.” To be intersectional analyses, then, in the historical sense of the term, empirical work should be concerned with identity groups (primarily race and gender). The term has a connotation of referring to women of color, specifically black women; using it to refer to any kind of identity intersection could make it so broad as to be meaningless.
In Intersectionality: An Intellectual History (2016), political scientist Ange-Marie Hancock urges a historically rooted and specific meaning to the term. In particular, she notes that there is a vocal segment of the intersectionality community who feel that without being centered “on the daily experiences of U.S. Black women,” intersectionality as a field of study can lose its analytical leverage and “rhetorical power” (Hancock, 2016, p. 12). Without some serious theoretical examination of the concept, Hancock worries, intersectionality can become a buzzword that can be “taken to mean anything and as a result is apropos of nothing” (Hancock, 2016, p. 208, 24fn).
And yet there is a tension here too, for focusing only on black women can result in an “othering” of women in other racial subgroups, men, or transgender individuals, for whom gender and race are often major identity concerns (Hancock, 2016, p. 13; see also Yamada, 1983; Brown, 2011; Moraga & Anzaldúa, 1983). For Hancock (2016, p. 16), the central question is: “How do intersectionality scholars find a middle ground between an impossible conceptualization of intersectionality as intellectual property, and a destructive conceptualization of intersectionality as meme, which shape-shifts so much as to no longer be recognizable as anything other than a meme gone viral?”
The rest of this article is an attempt to find the kind of middle ground that Hancock and others seek, expanding the term intersectionality somewhat so that it is not just about black women, but at the same time keeping in mind its historical roots relating to a combined race and gender analysis, particularly for the disaffected subgroups that result from such overlapping of identities.
Doing Empirical Intersectional Work
A key focus in intersectional theory and research (and feminist work more broadly) is the study of inequality. Looking at the distribution of rights or resources by multiple axes of identity is crucial; what looks to be a racial difference, for instance, may actually be more about gender than race, or more about class than anything. Anyone who works with data knows how many choices you must make as an analyst: What variables will you look at? Why those? Only by employing multiple analytical lenses and testing the hypotheses that they help generate can scholars systematically rule out other explanations and hope to arrive at a conclusion that approximates truth. The theory of intersectionality reminds us to consider alternative explanations for inequalities and to look for more than a single conclusion.
Statistically, this can be quite difficult. In political science, we know many things about inequalities. Scholars know, for instance, that inequalities in the political arena often stem from inequalities in the economic and social spheres. We know that inequalities seem to track membership in various types of identity-based groups. And we know that these inequalities on the whole appear to be persistent rather than rotating; certain groups are nearly always advantaged, and others disadvantaged. What is not yet known is how categories of identity intersect to produce more or less advantaged groups and group members. Inequalities, when layered, are not additive but multiplicative. One’s experience as a woman, for example, changes if one is black rather than white (or Asian or Native American or Latina, for that matter). Therefore, studying such inequalities individually misses a large part of the story. Writing on this topic, Shames (2009, p. 164) argued: “Using intersectionality as a lens for political science research will help us to study power more realistically and to better understand the inequalities that haunt our claims of democratic legitimacy.”
Yet such intersectionality is often prohibitively difficult to study empirically, especially quantitatively. Each time that an axis of inequality is added (race, class, education, gender, religion, etc.), it divides the sample, reducing the amount of data available to draw conclusions (thereby lessening statistical power). Leslie McCall (2005), writing on “The Complexity of Intersectionality,” explores the methodological problems that intersectionality introduces to scholarship. She points out the complexity of multiple dimensions of social identity, breaking down the methodology of studying intersectionality into three ways. Anticategorical complexity rejects and deconstructs analytical categories; intracategorical complexity uses categories but has a critical stance toward them; and intercategorical complexity, which uses these social categories strategically. This highlights the depth of dimensional thinking required in order to approach intersectionality analytically.
But it can get even more complicated when operationalizing such thinking methodologically, especially quantitatively. Employing interaction terms in statistical analysis requires collecting yet more data, and analyzing the intersection of all these types of inequalities would necessitate intensive data collection on groups that are notoriously difficult and expensive to study (the homeless, say, or small populations like disabled Latinas). Even after the time and expense hurdles have been overcome, statistical methods can take us only so far. Dealing seriously with the complexities of intersecting identities necessarily triggers quantitative data difficulties like endogeneity, collinearity, and multiple causes. Despite sophisticated statistical methods, the standard goal of regression analysis (isolating the effects of individual variables) may not help us (or indeed, may impede our ability to) fully understand the construction and functioning of hierarchies based on intersectionality. Most serious intersectional work, therefore, either uses qualitative data or works to pair quantitative data with qualitative methods that help us frame and interpret the statistical results.
Successful Examples of Intersectional Empirical Work in Political Science
The title of one of the most famous intersectionality books, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (Hull, Scott, & Smith, 1982) set the stage for much future work: the central conundrum is often that large identity groups (women, blacks) have been analyzed separately, with no regard for the segments of their population that occupy both identities. Black feminists in particular have pushed women’s studies toward greater specificity, and especially to consider that crucial dual category created by overlapping identities. Empirical work in political science has continued and expanded upon these central themes through some of these fine works (a partial list, in reverse chronological order):
Brown (2014)—A groundbreaking work of empirical intersectional political science, combining analyses of race and gender into a unified study of black women as state legislators, but also noting the differences within this group. Brown’s focus is on whether descriptive representation (having black women be the legislators) necessarily results in substantive representation [the substantive representation of the rights and interests of black women as a whole; see Mansbridge (1999) on the theory behind “descriptive representation,” and Mansbridge (2003) on other types of representation]. In particular, Brown finds, the way in which individual black female legislators see their racial and gender identities has a direct impact on their policy preferences and actions.
Bejarano (2013)—A deeply important work shedding light on a growing but understudied political force in the United States: Latinas. The overlap of ethnic and gender stereotypes and processes, Bejarano argues, works to the distinct advantage of Latinas as candidates (see also Fraga, Martinez-Ebers, V., Lopez, L., & Ramírez, 2005; Fraga, Lopez, Martinez-Ebers, & Ramírez, 2006). This work provides a nice counterpoint to the general thrust of the intersectionality work (usually focused on black women) that speaks of a supposed double disadvantage of race and gender; for Latinas, Bejarano suggests, intersectionality does not result in negative consequences, but potentially positive ones. With Hispanics a large and swiftly growing segment of the U.S. population, the focus on women within this group is particularly timely.
Gershon (2013)—Gershon examines how media coverage of women of color compares to that of their white/Anglo female counterparts. She found that Anglo women received the most coverage, and that women of color struggled in this respect. Latinas in particular received the lowest amount of coverage; they were limited by both content and frequency in media coverage of their campaigns. Latinas’ coverage also took a more negative tone, often focusing on race-related issues, like immigration, whose focus can detract from their own campaign messages and activities.
Scola (2014)—In this important study, Scola examines an older explanation in variations of women’s legislative services across the United States and puts it in an intersectional framework. She found that the old model helped to predict white female legislative service far better than it predicted that of women of color. The previous model, she explains, was “noticeably raced” (p. 117) and less helpful in predicting where women of color held office, suggesting a need for an intersectional framework that can consider both race and gender in such predictions.
Strolovitch (2007)—A fascinating foray into the world of interest-group politics and the focus on the representation that interest groups claim to do. Strolovitch combines intersectionality theory with empirical data on interest-group activity and members. As she notes, there are “many organizations (and increasing numbers of elected representatives) that advocate on [the behalf of women, racial minorities, and other low-income people] in the policy process” (p. 206). Her findings however, are that “the nature and extent of this advocacy is extremely uneven, and its net result is to privilege advantaged subgroups of those constituencies and to marginalize the interests of disadvantaged ones” (Strolovitch, 2007). Despite their claims (and often intentions) to represent all women, or all racial minorities, for instance, organizations consciously or unconsciously gravitate to better represent the interest of those who contribute to their funding and who are more vocal. Hence the need, Strolovitch argues, for “affirmative advocacy,” including coalition-based advocacy work, to better represent those whom intersectionality puts at a distinct disadvantage in terms of representation.
McCall (2005)—McCall’s article draws attention to the methodological issues that can arise when analyzing intersectionality. She explains the limits of both the old social science methods of studying intersectionality and the women’s studies approach, which she says may be shortsighted when accounting for systemic inequality. Ultimately, through her analysis of three different methods of categorization, she seeks to find one that can accurately examine the scope of intersectionality. She finds that none of the existing methods truly covers this scope of identity and that a new form of methodology is needed to address these concerns.
Hawkesworth (2003)—An excellent study of how U.S. Congresswomen of color undergo distinctive marginalization based on a process of “racing-gendering” that is about neither race nor gender alone. She defines racing-gendering as a “political process that silences, stereotypes, enforces invisibility, excludes, and challenges the epistemic authority of Congresswomen of color” (p. 529). Previous studies of women in legislatures missed this process, she explains, because the literature has not considered that political institutions themselves produce and reproduce raced/gendered experiences. Focusing her lens on the interaction between “racing” and “gendering” processes in the 1996 welfare reform debates allowed Hawkesworth to illuminate the particular forces operating to render Congresswomen of color invisible, along with their policy work and preferences.
Cohen (1999)—A critical, innovative, thoughtful, and thought-provoking study of divisions within black communities over issues of sexuality, particularly homosexuality and AIDS, as well as the marginalization of those affected by these issues despite their shared blackness. The alarmingly high rates of new HIV infections among blacks went virtually ignored by black community leaders through the 1980s and 1990s, Cohen notes, because of taboos about gender and sexuality. (In particular, as she writes, within black working-class communities, “To admit that your son was gay would be to confirm that you did something wrong in bringing him up.” This led to the “feelings of invisibility and powerlessness” for black gays and lesbians, as black women had described feeling in both the civil rights and feminist movements in earlier intersectionality writings.) Meanwhile, outside these communities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed for a long time to respond appropriately to the race-based elements involved in this epidemic.
Hardy-Fanta (1993)—The preface to Hardy-Fanta’s pioneering explains how she came to study her subject. “I did not plan to write a book about Latina women and politics,” she explains (p. ix). Instead, she meant to write more broadly about Latino political participation. However, “[f]rom the first day of interviews and community observations, and consistently throughout my more than two years of fieldwork, a pattern emerged—a pattern of gender differences in how Latina men and women in 1980s Boston perceive politics and how their different perceptions informed their ways of mobilizing the community” (Preface, p. ix). Such a finding, backed up with a plethora of detailed evidence from Hardy-Fanta’s careful research, excellently meets the goal of intersectionality scholarship: to unearth more global lessons about gender and race and how they intersect through a particular lens (Latinas in Boston, in this case). Hardy-Fanta. C., Lien, P.-t., & Pinderhughes, D. (2016) is also a pioneering study in intersectionality, looking at racial and ethnic minorities as elected officials and challenging other political science scholarship that has failed to take seriously race and ethnicity.
Political ambition, a term derived from Joseph Schlesinger’s 1966 book of the same name, is generally taken to mean the study of who seeks office—more particularly, the study of those who desire that office and the reasons behind this desire (see, among others, Schlesinger, 1966; Black, 1972; Rohde, 1979; Fowler & McClure, 1989; Kazee, 1994; Moncrief, Squire, & Jewell, 2001; Gaddie, 2003; Lawless & Fox, 2005; Fox & Lawless, 2005; Maisel, Stone, & Maestas, 2006). This realm of study began before Schlesinger (see, e.g., McConaughy, 1950), but he seems to have invented and popularized the term, and its modern usage has been heavily shaped by his interpretation.
Underlying what Schlesinger calls his “ambition theory of politics” is the central assumption “that a politician’s behavior is a response to his office goals” (Schlesinger, 1966, p. 6). Schlesinger distinguishes between political amateurs, who are motivated by policy goals, and professionals, “who use policy issues as the means to gain office” (Schlesinger, 1966, p. 3). This theory ties nicely in with earlier writings on “party theory”; Schlesinger writes, “Political parties tie men’s ambitions together, linking their fate over time” (Schlesinger, 1966). Left unexplored in this work, however, is the question of what motivates office-seeking, if not policy—Schlesinger seems to suggest that the answer is a desire for power for its own sake (see his discussion on Laswell; p. 4). But in general, he is not too interested in what motivates office-seeking: “What is needed, therefore, is a theory of politics which explicitly accepts the assumption that politicians respond primary to their office goals, in affect an ambition theory of politics, rather than a theory which explains personal ambitions” (Schlesinger, 1966).
This desire for office-holding, whatever its source, is not a bad thing in his opinion; rather, it is the central feature that makes American democracy work. “A political system unable to kindle ambitions for office is as much in danger of breaking down as one unable to restrain ambitions,” he wrote, continuing that “[r]epresentative government, above all, depends on a supply of men so driven; the desire for election and, more important, for reelection becomes the electorate’s restraint upon its public officials. No more irresponsible government is imaginable than one of high-minded men unconcerned for their political futures” (Schlesinger, 1966, p. 2). Ambition, however, is constrained by the structure of political opportunities available due to turnover, party control, office sequence, existing coalitions, voter party identity within the district, and other structural factors.
A few years later, Black (1972) and Rohde (1979) expanded the theory of how structural factors relate to political ambition. Black (1972) explicitly considers the opportunity costs of choosing to run for office versus other career options. Officeholders, he notes, regularly have to choose whether to run again, seek a higher office, or leave politics. Black defines political ambition as “the desire to seek higher office,” which Schlesinger (1966) called “progressive ambition,” and argues that it is the “product of the investments that politicians make in their political careers” (Black, 1972, p. 144). Such investments, he further suggests, are linked to district factors like size and competitiveness. Rohde (1979) concurs that political ambition or the lack thereof is the product of rational calculations on the part of office-seekers, particularly emphasizing how much politicians value their current office, their probability of winning higher office, and the value that they place on holding that higher office.
Defining political ambition solely by its exercise (i.e., those who have political ambition are those who run for office) lacks theoretical coherence; many people run for office for reasons other than wanting to hold that office. Some run to increase their name recognition in a community (the classic used-car salesman as politician is a perfect example), while others (such as most third-party candidates) run without expecting to win, for purely policy-oriented reasons. Sometimes challengers who cannot hope to win run against incumbents for democratic-theory-related reasons; every election, they believe, should be a contest between alternatives rather than simply a meaningless exercise of voting for an unchallenged incumbent. One may wish, in fact, that more of these types of candidates would run; McGlennon and Mahoney (2012) found that only about 60% of state legislative elections offered voters a choice between major-party candidates.
Political ambition as a concept thus needs deeper theory behind it, and several scholars have attempted to explain it in more depth. Some separate what Fox and Lawless (2005) call “expressive” political ambition (actually running) from “nascent” ambition (having a desire to run). However, they make an important distinction between the two types of ambition. Nascent ambition (“considering a candidacy”), they say, “requires contemplating the courageous step of going before an electorate and opening oneself up to potential examination, scrutiny, and rejection by the public” (Fox & Lawless, 2005, p. 642). Expressive ambition is important, but “in order to understand fully the decision dynamics involved in moving from ‘eligible potential candidate’ to ‘actual office holder,’ it is necessary to step back and assess nascent ambition—’the inclination to consider a candidacy’” (p. 644). Particularly, Fox and Lawless (2005) and Lawless and Fox (2010) suggest that nascent political ambition exists within individuals, and that gender and recruitment can significantly predict whether an individual will have it.
Others have widened the scope of their analysis beyond the individual candidate to pay attention to the institutional constraints (and sometimes opportunities) that deter or facilitate their entry. This more institutionalist perspective is more common in comparative than in American political studies (see, e.g., Davidson-Schmich, 2016; Ashe & Stewart, 2012; Norris, 1997; Norris & Lovenduski, 1995; Hinojosa, 2012), and often focuses on the recruiters, the parties, and others who choose candidates (but on the Americanist side, see Sanbonmatsu, 2006). Individual political ambition, however, is especially crucial in U.S. politics, arguably far more so than other advanced democracies; here, there are far more “candidate-centered” elections than “party-centered” ones (Wattenberg, 1991, 1996).
But institutions can still matter in moderating that individual ambition, and several scholars have found clever ways to study this interaction. Beginning in the mid-1990s, scholars introduced the term candidate emergence as a useful alternative to political ambition (Kazee, 1994; Maisel, Stone, & Meastas, 2006). While individual candidates may or may not have ambition, in other words, that is not the sole determinant of their emerging as candidates; other factors include the institutions within which they operate and the actions of others, such as recruiters, donors, and party leaders.
Carroll and Sanbonmatsu (2013), in particular, has challenged the standard “ambition” framework, saying that it works far less well to explain women’s entry into political office than men’s. Women’s paths are generally different, with women coming less often from the male-dominated professions like business or the law, which are the most studied as sources of samples of potential candidates (see Lawless & Fox, 2005, 2010; Shames, 2017). Individual ambition may not be the right framework for studying women; instead, Carroll and Sanbonmatsu (2013) argue that one should utilize a “relationally embedded candidacy” framework of analysis when studying candidate emergence (p. 61). Fowler and McClure (1989) suggest that such a framework also would be more useful than ambition alone in studying the political ambition of men, too.
Given these findings, and men’s documented higher levels of willingness to take the risks involved in running, it is not surprising that multiple studies find that women are often more strategic than male counterparts about when and where they do run, even if we look at progressive ambition (ambition for higher office among the already elected), rather than the initial candidate-emergence stage. Palmer and Simon (2012) and Political Parity (2016) both find independently that women are more likely to run (and win) in “women-friendly districts,” in the words of Palmer and Simon. That is, certain districts are far more likely than others to elect women to the U.S. House of Representatives. One key factor is party; Democratic-leaning districts are more likely to elect women than those that lean Republican. Another element is having a history of electing other women. But certain demographic factors are still significant, even when controlling for party and women’s leadership history; women-friendly districts have higher median incomes, more educated citizens, more compact geography, more racial diversity, and fewer senior citizens (Palmer & Simon, 2012; Political Parity, 2016).
Work by Danielle Thomsen on “party fit” also suggests that the political opportunity structure around a candidate matter greatly, both for initial candidate emergence and for progressive ambition; she finds that Republican moderates in particular are less likely to run since the mid-2000s. This particularly affects potential female candidates in the GOP, as they are, on the whole, less in step with their party’s rightward move ideologically (Thomsen, 2014). And on the progressive ambition side, Erler (2017) and Fulton, Maestas, Maisel, and Stone (2006) agree that elected women are highly strategic about when and where they will risk a run for higher office.
Ultimately, scholars agree that there needs to be some individual will to run for office, or to run for higher office if already elected, but they do not agree on exactly what that will is, or the extent to which it is innate within the individual (see, e.g., Gaddie, 2003) or sparked and fanned by other actors and the wider political institutions around the individual (see, e.g., Carroll & Sanbonmatsu, 2013; Sanbonmatsu, 2006; Maisel, Stone, & Maestas, 2006; Thomsen, 2014; Shames, 2017). Thomas (1994, p. 87) suggests that those who run to win are those who find politics meaningful or useful: “[T]he very choice of joining an organization (assuming a certain level of choice was operational) signifies that the person doing the choosing considers the organization or its goals to be generally valuable and legitimate”; and Shames (2017) concurs.
It is thus argued that political ambition is not solely personal; rather, it deeply connects to individuals’ views on the usefulness of politics to solve problems and their more immediate chances of “doing good” while in office. Ambitious politicians, therefore, would look not only at what office they could win, but whether it would be worth their while. Here, Shames (2017) argues that we start to see some major biases in who runs, not only from the regular selection mechanisms (i.e., who gets recruited, whom voters will choose, or whom the media pay attention to) but also importantly from self-selection (i.e., who is willing to run). The work of many scholars suggests that, in fact, self-selection biases may be the most critical in understanding who runs, because certain types of people may opt out of running far more than others.
Self-selection also works powerfully to decide what office or offices a politically ambitious person is willing to seek. Lawless and Fox (2010) and Shames (2017) both find that young people are unlikely to be politically ambitious (but among young people, those who do show such ambition are disproportionately male). Shames (2017) further suggests there may be a federalist aspect to this type of motivation; candidates for local offices, such as city council or school board, hope to use these offices to do good for their communities, perhaps to a greater extent than candidates for state and federal office. Fulton et al. (2006) find that although female state legislators have less documented political ambition than male counterparts, they are just as likely to run for Congress; they resolve this seeming conundrum with the finding that the women in their sample placed a higher expected benefit on the value of holding a congressional seat but were more strategic about their potential candidacies. Political Parity (2014) found the same heightened level of strategic considerations in the minds of elected women as potential candidates for higher office (progressive ambition).
Challenges of Doing Empirical and Intersectional Work in Political Ambition
The empirical study of political ambition faces a key problem in sample and case study choice justification. Most early works in the field suffered from selection bias, in that they studied only those who had already won office (officeholders), or already decided to run (declared candidates). The problem, if we are trying to understand why some people have such ambition while others do not, is that this kind of sampling method does not gather information on those who do not.
One major breakthrough in this regard came from Fowler and McClure (1989), who eschewed the study of a large-n data set in favor of an in-depth case study of a single district in the 1984 (and to some extent the 1986) congressional races. This method, which relied on in-depth interviewing as well as analysis of district conditions and context, allowed them to look at the many unseen candidates. They explain, “In every congressional district in the United States, there are people who could run for Congress but who choose not to when the opportunity arrives” (Fowler & McClure, 1989, p. 1)—for reasons ranging from the purely personal (family issues) to the purely strategic (not wanting to challenge an entrenched incumbent), and every point in between. What Fowler and McClure’s excellent study loses in generalizability, being focused on a single district at a single point in time, it more than makes up for in specificity; their work reminds us that, as Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” As Fowler and McClure (1989, p. 7) put it, “The men and women who go to Congress, as well as the unseen candidates who do not, are mainly the products of hundreds of local political forces, each peculiar to a given time and place.”
Fowler and McClure’s study presages and likely stimulated some key foci in the current study of political ambition, including the focus on how contextual factors shape the expression of ambition. They also find that context, and therefore whether an unseen candidate acts on political ambition, is constantly in flux. They write: “Circumstances may change, other potential candidates may intervene, or new information may surface. In the process, the would-be candidate may change his or her mind a number of times as new reasons for running or not running come to light” (Fowler & McClure, 1989, pp. 7–8). In particular, they suggest that a candidate faces a number of “givens” that form an unalterable context within which candidates decide to run or not (givens include the partisan breakdown of a district, the presence or lack of an incumbent, and the prevailing national sentiment of voters in a given year). “Within this context, would-be candidates first assess the risks of a congressional campaign” (Fowler & McClure, 1989, p. 25), and assess the costs and potential benefits.
But unpredictable things happen all the time, both personally within candidates’ lives and publically within communities, states, or the nation as a whole. As Fowler and McClure write at the end of their book, after detailing the many unexpected events in the 1984 and then 1986 races in New York 30th Congressional District, “We could not have invented so many unlikely twists and turns, much less expected them . . . When we began this inquiry into congressional recruitment, we assumed prospective candidates would approach their decisions about running for higher office as relatively straightforward calculations of personal costs and benefits . . . The unpredictable events in New York’s 30th district did not fit such a simple model” (Fowler & McClure, 1989, p. 223). Especially, as they note a few pages later, “the thinking of most politicians also involves considerations about family, friends, personal needs, and private insecurities” (p. 228). Ultimately, context is critical. And, as they remind us, luck and contingency—“the subjective, the intuitive, the capricious, perhaps even the random elements”—can play a large role in the procedural aspects of democracy (p. 11).
Within the study of political ambition, another key methodological innovation came from Maisel and Stone, and later also Maestas, whose “Candidate Emergence Study” began in the mid-1990s (see Maisel, Stone, & Maestas, 2006), who found a way to conduct a large-n survey of those who could be good candidates, but mostly will not run. Their methodology involves finding “potential candidates” by interviewing “district informants” (journalists, party leaders, and other key figures in congressional districts) about who could be a good candidate for an upcoming election. After compiling a database of such potential candidates, they surveyed these people about why they would or would not run, and under what conditions, leading to a fascinating array of findings over many years (see, e.g., Maisel, Stone, & Maestas, 2006 and Maisel, Stone, & Maestas, 2006).
In the early 2000s, Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox created a different kind of candidate emergence/political ambition study to find and survey potential candidates who probably will not run. Looking at the professions from whence candidates arise, they noticed that there were four main areas: law, business, nonprofit/advocacy, and education. Of these, law is the largest. They collected the names of men and women at the top of each of these fields and conducted a massive survey to ask these people if they would consider running, and why or why not. Their interest was especially geared toward the gap in political ambition between women and men, and their methodology (having men and women matched for profession, experience, and prestige/status) was excellently tailored to provide new answers to this question (Lawless & Fox, 2005, 2010).
Given the difficulties inherent in the empirical study of both intersectional and political ambition, it is not surprising that to date, few large-scale studies have considered the two together. This is beginning to change, as scholars interested in political ambition turn their attention to different subgroups of candidates (see, e.g., Frederick, 2013; Shah, 2013), or, more rarely, to examining women of color separately from white women in the same study (Scola, 2014; Shames, 2017).
Intersectionality is multifaceted, and beyond gender, multiple other studies have noted the deep socioeconomic bias (which connects to a racial bias) in who runs for office and the related study of what difference it makes in policy output (on the latter point, see especially Carnes, 2013). As the essays in Kazee (1994) and Moncrief, Squire, and Jewell (2001) point out, those who run for Congress and the state legislatures are disproportionately well educated, professional, white, and male. Both works also speak to the power of individual policy issues and life experiences to motivate office-seeking, and to some extent, they belie the supposition of Schlesinger (1966) that ambition is solely individual.
In particular, research suggests that those who believe that politics solves important problems are those most likely to run (Shames, 2017). Mayhew (1974) is also instructive here. His famous dictum of “the electoral connection” is referenced primarily for its central assumption that a legislator’s top priority is to get reelected. He is remembered less for observing that legislators have other goals, including the creation of good public policy. Shames (2017) and Platt (2008) also stress the idea of policy motivations for political activity.
On the institutional factors side, many women are discouraged from running, in sometimes subtle (and sometimes not-very-subtle) ways; these women, however, are extremely difficult to study, giving a distinct bias to this area of scholarship (studies only hear from those who run, and mostly from those who have won at some level). Particularly when trying to study barriers to women’s entry, this research thus often has biased findings. “The existing research that observes few obstacles to women’s election to office frequently suffers from the project of selection; we generally do not study those women who were discouraged from running” (Carroll & Sanbonmatsu, 2013, p. 127). Certain careful and contextualized studies, however, like Sanbonmatsu (2006) on party leaders and their support (or lack thereof) for women candidates, find important effects from parties, either as recruiters and supporters of women or as gatekeepers blocking them. Ultimately, as Carroll and Sanbonmatsu (2013, p. 12) find, there are “political as well as social origins” to women’s continued underrepresentation as elected leaders. This is only amplified when the elements of intersectionality are entered into the equation.
However, some attempts have been made to highlight both the underrepresentation of women as elected leaders and an emphasis on when those difficulties become intersectional. Book-length treatments of intersectional political ambition are rare, but Scola (2014) makes great strides in this area. Her work finds, as we would expect given intersectionality theory, that the factors facilitating the entry of white women into political offices are different for women of color. Her focus is on institutional factors facilitating officeholding rather than individual political ambition, and she suggests (as do Bejarano, 2013; Fraga et al., 2005, 2006) that women of color in fact have an advantage once they have political ambitions.
However, there is no secret that there are unique challenges that black women face while once in government. This has the potential to affect their progressive ambition. Hawkesworth (2003, p. 546) explains that “through tactics such as silencing, stereotyping, enforced invisibility, exclusion, marginalization, challenges to epistemic authority, refusals to hear . . . Congresswomen of color are constituted ‘other.’ Essentially, they are forced to deal with institutional dynamics and interpersonal relations that constitute them as subordinate.”
In a “Critical Perspectives” article published in Politics and Gender Journal in 2005, Melissa Harris-Lacewell writes that black female political scientists offer stories and perspectives that are rendered silent by their white male colleagues in research. Power for these women, she explains, is more than an abstract concept. Their vastly different life experiences include personal and community-based experiences of race/class/gender discrimination and exploitation, leading them to formulate new research agendas, to focus on overlooked populations, and to ask questions in a different way than those who currently dominate political science. Such an understanding calls into question the value of ever studying gender, race, education, or class alone.
Reaching the point where women of color want to run presents its own challenges, however, especially in the case of progressive ambition. Nadia Brown (2014), in her book Sisters in the Statehouse, sought to examine the different types of representation of black women in the legislature, and more specifically, how these legislators see the effects of their race-gender identities on their own legislative works. Brown studies the histories of African American women legislators to get an understanding of how their experiences with racism and sexism shape their legislative decision-making and policy preferences.
Shames (2017) looks further upstream of the officeholding process, relying for empirical data on potential candidates rather than officeholders. It is, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive study to date of how both race and gender intersect with political ambition in a noncandidate (and nonofficeholding) sample. The methodology draws to a large degree from Lawless and Fox (2005) in sample selection and justification, with a twist; their sample was adult professionals at the top of their careers, while I hypothesized that race and gender gaps in political ambition would be visible much further upstream. Accordingly, I surveyed nearly 800 law and public policy school students at prestigious institutions that were likely to produce political candidates (Harvard Law School, Suffolk Law School, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government). Harvard is the university most likely to send its graduates into national-level politics, and Suffolk is Massachusetts’ largest supplier of candidates into state-level politics. Together, these school’s graduate students studying law and policy gave a nice, well-matched, gender-balanced, and racially diverse sample of people who could be good political candidates if they wanted. Then, the question was: Would they want to run? Why or why not?
In addition to the large survey, which yielded rich quantitative data, I conducted 53 interviews of about an hour each with survey-takers to probe further their feelings, opinions, and perspectives on politics and potential candidacy. Generally, I found that these students saw a great deal of potential in politics, but also thought it was somewhat corrupt and not an efficient or effective way to create the kind of social change that they wanted to see. They saw numerous costs to running (e.g., time, financial, opportunity, morality, and privacy), and unfortunately not enough rewards to balance the usually high perceptions of costs. When costs are high and rewards not very high, it is rational to avoid running—a situation I call in the book “candidate deterrence” (Shames, 2017).
The situation for women versus men follows the same pattern of rewards failing to balance costs, but women in general saw higher costs and fewer rewards than men did. The lower political ambition of women compared with comparable male counterparts, I argue, is completely rational, given the sets of costs and rewards that they perceive. Women and men often saw the same costs (which deterred men as well as women), but women were, on average, far more sensitive to men to these costs. At the same time, women saw additional costs in the form of massive sex-based discrimination, which further decreased their willingness to consider candidacy.
Having a racially diverse sample allowed me to make an examination of race within gender (at least for Asian American, black, and Hispanic students; there were not enough students of other races in the sample—or perhaps in these schools—to get large enough samples for statistical analysis), and its relationship with political ambition, which is often not possible in political ambition research. (I had deliberately collected an oversample of people of color, especially black and Hispanic students, for this purpose.)
The first interesting finding was that, in this very elite group of young people, the men of color did not look all that different from the white men; if anything, men of color were more politically ambitious than their white male counterparts. I suggested two possible reasons for this finding (which requires replication and more research to explain fully): an “Obama effect,” where Barack Obama, the first black president, may have inspired young men of color to greater heights of political ambition; and a selection effect, where the highly elite men of color in these graduate schools were so carefully selected (by themselves and others, like college and graduate school admissions committees) that they were quite unlike men of color in the general population. Both effects could be operating at once.
Women of color in the sample, however, turned out to be a completely different story. While men of color had somewhat more political ambition than their white male counterparts, women of color had far less political ambition than white women. In investigating why, I came to a multitude of possible reasons, and ultimately suggested that many of these were probably operating simultaneously. On the one hand, women of color perceived the costs of running as being higher, and for this subgroup, the economic riskiness of running and the opportunity cost of a foregone private-sector salary played a major deterring role. Women of color also saw higher costs than any other race-gender subgroup, anticipating having to face both racial and gender bias from voters, donors, the media, and party leaders. On the other hand, women of color (and black women especially) were least likely to see politics as being useful and effective to solve problems. Perceiving higher costs than everyone else, and lower rewards, unfortunately made running for office the least likely for these young, ambitious, intelligent, and socially minded women of color. Ultimately, I conclude, because of these intersectional pressures, we as a society are missing out on these critical talents and perspectives.
The possibilities for future work in intersectionality and political ambition are exciting; scholars have only just begun to scratch the surface. Shames (2017) suggests that different race-gender subgroups of young, elite graduate students in law and public policy have differing levels of political ambition, with men of color showing somewhat higher ambition than white men, and women of color showing lower political ambition than white women, even while women as a whole show far lower ambition for political office than men (Lawless & Fox, 2005, 2010; see also Scola, 2014). Future work could usefully examine race-gender subgroups in more depth and pay more attention to the differences among different groups of women of color. The initial suggestion from my work thus far is that black women and Latinas are the most turned off by traditional electoral politics, but far more research could be done to figure out why this is the case and how and when this aversion to running for office (“candidate deterrence”) (Shames, 2017) can be mitigated or reversed.
The political ambition of Asian American women should be researched separately and in more depth as well, with attention to the differences between nationality groups (Vietnamese women may be quite different from Japanese women, for example). Bejarano (2013) finds that Latina women actually may have an advantage as candidates, a hypothesis supported by the thinking and research work by Fraga et al. (2005, 2006), and by the presence of women as major activists and leaders in contemporary Latin American politics and protest movements.
For Asian American women, the “racial triangulation” of Asian Americans in the United States (Kim, 1999) and a strong strain of patriarchy in the cultures of many Asian (and Asian American) cultures also may make the gender role incongruity (Eagly & Karau, 2005) of being a woman running for office particularly severe for Asian Americans, especially if they are married. (The strong tradition of wifely subservience, enforced in many Asian cultures by mothers-in-law in particular but cultural norms more generally, has led to especially intense work-family conflict for modern, educated Asian women, many of whom avoid the conflict by choosing not to marry at all, which has led to some large governmental efforts to promote marriage and procreation, as in Japan and South Korea.) Scholars could usefully examine how the specificity of particular Asian cultures, and the generalizable features of Asian American women as a group, intersect with their political ambition.
The subgroup of women about whom we need the most work, however, is Native American women (and native women in other countries), who go unmentioned in this and other political ambition research because of the intense difficulties in studying them and their near-total exclusion from the ranks of political candidates and officeholders. For many native women, this may be because the fight for survival (of soul as well as body) is all-consuming; for example, Sarah Deer (2015), winner of the Victoria Schuck Award for the best book on women and politics, details the troubling epidemic of rape against Native American women and speaks implicitly to the need for greater representation of women among political leaders.
In addition, the suggestion that elite men of color may indeed have greater political aspirations than similarly situated white men is fascinating and well worth further study. As mentioned previously, Shames (2017) offers, but is unable to test, two hypotheses to explain this finding: (a) a major selection bias effect, where the men of color who make it to elite law and policy graduate schools are such a selected and self-selected group that they are very unlike either their white male or of-color female counterparts; and (b) the Obama effect, where the election of the first black male president had a positive effect on the political ambition of men of color, especially black men. Both possibilities, and any others that might help better explain the differing political aspirations of men by race, should be investigated further. Finally, the class element needs to be considered. The elite men of color in this study are generally quite different from the majority of nonwhite men in their age group in terms of income and education, which may matter far more to the lives of individuals as a whole than either race or gender.
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(1.) Historians point out, however, that no true transcript of Truth’s famous speech exists, and it is quite possible that its most quoted line, “Ain’t I a woman?” was never actually uttered (see Siebler, 2010, for an overview of the history/politics of the speech).
(2.) Hancock (2016) notes that Crenshaw begin presenting this idea and term at scholarly conferences before this, in the late 1980s, but the published date of her law review article is given here, as that reached a far wider audience and is most commonly cited as the start of this term being used popularly.