Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Shattering the Glass or Wiping it Down?: Issues in Public Opinion Research on Female Presidential Candidates in the Age of Hillary Clinton

At the height of her short-lived bid for the American presidency in 1988, Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder famously told the press: “When people ask me why I am running as a woman, I always answer, ‘What choice do I have?’” Although her ironic response successfully called attention to the inherent gender-bias associated with such a question, Schroeder was ultimately unable to shake public skepticism at the notion of a female front-runner in the Democratic primary. When the excited buzz surrounding her candidacy failed to produce significant funds to support a competitive campaign, Schroeder’s quest for a seat in the Oval Office ended abruptly with a tearful press conference that was endlessly mocked by critics of the day (Tickner, 1992). Twenty years later, a new woman has emerged from the political landscape with an eye on capturing the highest office in the land. But unlike Schroeder, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is generating both the buzz and the bucks needed to mount a bold campaign for the presidency. As analysts continue to place Clinton’s campaign finances at the top of the list for the 2008 frontrunners, stereotypes of female domesticity, submission, and apathy seem dusty vestiges of great grand-pappy’s political dogma. Yet despite the unprecedented optimism with which Clinton-enthusiasts regard her gendered presidential campaign, a vast and complex body of public opinion research suggests that Hillary’s attempted return to the White House may not be as free from the throes of gender discrimination as the civic-minded, ambitious women of our generation would happily believe. An analysis of the evolution of gender bias in public opinion studies and the attribution of leadership qualities to female political candidates will show that the American public’s readiness to elect a female president remains an elusive question – with Hillary Clinton’s upcoming run in the Democratic primary the nearest thing to an answer on the horizon.

Social scientists have long been fascinated with American attitudes toward female politicians, with inquiry into the public’s willingness to vote for a woman president fundamental in their historic investigations.
Although significant numbers of female representatives in senatorial and gubernatorial offices were a dream until the early 1990s, questions probing the willingness of citizens to elect a woman president first appeared in national opinion surveys as early as 1937 (Carpini & Fuchs, 1993). In a survey that would become the first in a long series of investigations into national gender biases, the Gallup Organization asked respondents whether they would “vote for a woman for president if she were qualified in every other respect” (1937). Indeed, the blatantly discriminatory language of this question reflected the cynical public sentiment at the time, with 64% of respondents saying they would not vote for a woman. In hindsight public opinion scholars have been deeply critical of the leading language of this first question, noting that “the use of the word ‘other’ clearly suggests to the respondent that simply being a woman makes one unqualified for the job” (Falk & Kenski, 2006, p. 414). Future researchers were more careful in framing questions about women candidates, and the word “other” was dropped from survey lexicon completely in 1939 (Falk & Kenski, 2006).

Yet despite long running researcher-recognition of problems in framing questions about women presidential candidates, modern opinion surveys persist in using loaded language to ask respondents if they would vote for a female president.
Recent surveys from the most respected polling agencies in the United States continue to ask questions such as: “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be a woman, would you vote for that person?” or “If your party nominated a woman for president, would you vote for her if she were qualified for the job?” (USA Today & Gallup Poll, 2007; Newsweek & Princeton Survey Research Associates, 2006). Although such wording is by and large an improvement on the 1937 prototype, the underlying assumption in each of these examples is that being a woman is an inherent disadvantage to any individual seeking office, “clearly prim[ing] questions about a woman’s qualifications” (Falk & Kenski, 2006, p. 414). Of course, our country has never had a female president or an official female nominee for the office, so pollsters may make a case for the necessity of such wording; but ultimately this persistence of biased language seems indicative of enduring social norms regarding women leaders.

This is not to say, however, that public sentiment has lain stagnate on the issue of willingness to vote for a woman president.
In her acclaimed analysis of Americans’ changing responses to the question, Myra Ferree found that public opinion moved significantly in favor of a woman president between 1958 and 1972, with the most noticeable change occurring between 1969 and 1972 (Feree, 1974, p. 392):

Change over time in percentage of respondents willing to vote for a female presidential candidate

Year of Survey

Percent “Yes”

Percent “No”



















In that final period, the number of respondents willing to vote for a woman candidate for president jumped 15% (from a slim majority of 55% to almost two-thirds of the sample population), and the number of those unreceptive to a female president declined at a comparable rate. As may be logically inferred, “the increase in positive attitudes toward a woman for president coincides with the impact of the feminist movement… beginning in the 1970s” (Mandel, 2006, p.5). Since the late 1990s (and the many monumental advances women have made into the public sphere), positive response rates to the woman-candidate question have remained steady at above 90% of most samples.

Indeed, these numbers paint a promising picture for a candidate like Clinton – with deep running campaign funds and a prominent name among the American people to boot – but not all public opinion research paints U.S. voters as so accepting of the prospect of a woman’s leadership. A significant number of social scientists believe that the social desirability effect (whereby individuals feel the need to conform to perceived expectations of interviewers) may be accountable for the large percentage of survey respondents who say they are willing to vote for a female presidential candidate (Falk & Kenski, 2006; Streb et al., 2006). Although this effect is extremely difficult to examine or manipulate in a research setting, those who believe that social desirability has an impact on modern survey respondents wary of being labeled as “sexist” would agree that the effect may explain significantly lower positive responses to survey questions regarding the nation’s overall readiness for a woman president. Carole Kennedy writes: “While most Americans report that they personally would be willing to vote for a woman president, other polls show that a majority of Americans still believe that the country is not ready to elect a woman president” (Kennedy, 2001). Kennedy’s findings reflect those in a February 2007 poll conducted by the Gallup Organization, in which only 60% of respondents felt that America is actually ready for a woman president (CNN & Opinion Research Corporation, 2006). Such a narrow majority of individuals who believe the country is ready to elect a woman to the Oval Office suggests the existence of very real reservations among American voters about the capability of a woman to serve as president.

Researchers have attempted to determine how voters evaluate this presidential capability by examining respondents’ attribution of leadership traits to both male and female candidates; yet perhaps unsurprisingly, the studies have produced unclear results for interpreting the elective power of a woman like Hillary Clinton in today’s political climate. In a 1993 experiment, Alexander and Andersen found that:

…gender role beliefs may predispose people to a more or less favorable view of women politicians, and in particular that those who profess an egalitarian ideology see female candidates in a positive light both in traditional “female” terms and in their possession of more “masculine” attributes (Alexander & Andersen, 1993, p. 541).

But while such a finding is promising for female presidential aspirants counting on votes from so-called egalitarian ideologues, the option of a less favorable view of women politicians remains, with the unfavorable set of biases presumably originating from voters in the conservative heartland of America that has often proved important to presidential hopefuls.

Ultimately, the things that influence individuals to attribute leadership characteristics to political candidates – regardless of gender – are dependent upon multiple factors outside of mere gender stereotypes.
Kenski and Falk believe that political partisanship is the most important indicator of voter preference for a female or male presidential candidate, when information regarding their respective policy backgrounds and party identification is readily available (Kenski & Falk, 2006). Yet these scientists also find that “gender, education, and ideology [of respondents] are strong predictors of presidential gender preference,” though it remains unclear how each of these traits may influence an individual’s liking of female (or male) politicians (Kenski & Falk, 2004, p. 58). In short, the effect of voter gender, party identification, ideology, and other demographic characteristics on voter preference for female (or male) political candidates is unknown.

So although we can be confident that the American public is more receptive to a female president now than in 1937, the critical mass of public opinion research on political gender biases has left much to be desired in terms of definitive answers regarding the nation’s true readiness to elect a woman president.
But in the absence of any serious female candidates in the United States’ long history of presidential elections, this shortage of conclusive data is not entirely unexpected. Indeed, steadily increasing numbers of female senatorial and gubernatorial representatives indicate that the public is both ready and willing to elect women leaders (in spite of that cursed uterus early Gallup Pollsters once considered damning for a politician). The question remains, however, whether these “uterus votes” can be extended to the Oval Office, the virtual no-woman’s land of presidential power and influence. As the first-ever female candidate to possess substantial financial resources, national visibility, and respected political credentials all at once, Hillary Clinton will doubtless be a crucial figure in public opinion research for her upcoming leading role in the 2008 presidential elections – when we will finally have a chance to determine if America is willing to vote for a woman president.

1 comment:

Kel said...

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