Are Women to Blame For Lack of Women Candidates on Virginia Ballot?


Washington Post print subscribers were greeted last weekend with an important story about how in November Virginia voters will find no women up for election on the statewide ballot. Not only will there be no women on the ballot this November, there are also no women currently elected to statewide office—making it one of seven states in the country that have no women serving in statewide elective offices. This important story by reporter Ben Pershing was given a prominent positive on the front page of the Virginia edition of the Washington Post I received on my doorstop. (It was also on the Washington Post’s home page).

Now typically when a reporter spots an issue, they’ll interview several experts. There’s nothing wrong with this approach to reporting but it can have its flaws, especially if the experts don’t see the full system because each of them only has a part of the picture.

For the most part, Pershing’s story is well-reported. He interviewed a range of perspectives including, the only woman to have won statewide office in Virginia, the only current female Republican state senator, the heads of two organizations that train women how to run for office, two professors who study politics, and two women – a retired state Senator and a county board of supervisors – who recently unsuccessfully sought the Republican Party’s nomination for lieutenant governor.

That’s a pretty good list of interview subjects, each with some perspective why Virginia not only doesn’t have any women in statewide office now, but why there hasn’t been any in 20 years.

A subtle theme is drawn out in the story, one person “said she believed some women ‘are a little intimidated by the fundraising’ required to run statewide.” Another “observ[ed] that some women she knew were not “comfortable” interacting with potential big donors because they were less accustomed to mixing socially with business leaders than men were.” The last (and only) woman elected as state attorney general opined, “If we’ve got a gender-equity problem in terms of who gets elected, I don’t think we can blame that on men.”

To be sure: despite that statement, reporter Pershing did find others who described what sure sounds like a gender-attitude problem from some corners. (And not all gender-expectation problems come from men.)

Stimpson, 42, said she was frequently asked her age on the campaign trail.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a male candidate asked that question,” she said, adding that she was often told she was “pretty, but not up to the task.”

Still, while it’s easy to place the blame for the lack of representation at the feet of the women of Virginia who don’t run, Pershing’s story could have asked a slightly different question. Not “why don’t women run” but “what makes Virginia’s political climate different from nearby Maryland?” Maryland, unlike Virginia, has women filling 30 percent of its General Assembly — “the ninth-highest number in the country.” Maryland’s record of women elected to statewide office is somewhat better than Virginia’s – although it too has never elected a woman governor. (Anyone looking to compare how Virginia’s ratio of elected women compares to other states should check out the invaluable website for the Center for American Women in Politics.)

Still there are hints in the article about potential institutional barriers to women’s ability to be elected in Virginia: gerrymandered districts and stable incumbency leave fewer opportunities for turnover and a part-time legislature which requires all elected officials to have a second income (or a spouse who earns enough for both).

It probably is accurate to say that the lack of women on Virginia’s statewide ballot is reflective of many factors, but it may be more useful to examine whether some factors – such as access to funding or institutional barriers—are more likely to have direct impact than the idea that women as a whole in Virginia lack some inherent gumption that their sisters in Maryland seem to possess.


Published by Kate McCarthy on 06/18/2013

« Back to More Blog Posts