Women halt political interests because of cultural barriers

Jenna Rakuita poses with stickers asking people to vote for her in the Utah Legislature. Women face more barriers than men when campaigning. (Photo courtesy of Jenna Rakuita)

Jenna Rakuita woke up ready to make a difference in her community. However, the first thought crossing her mind was this: “What does someone wear to file for candidacy?”

She did not own a blazer or a pantsuit. Rakuita wanted to look like someone who would file for candidacy. She felt nervous and felt imposter syndrome because of her lack of clothing options. Yet she did not let these feelings stop her, hoping it would be okay if she showed up without a blazer. 

Webster’s Dictionary defines imposter syndrome as “a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one’s abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one’s ongoing success.”

Rakuita had decided only the day before the deadline to file for candidacy and run for office to represent her legislative district. The decision came after a friend called her at 11 p.m. to nudge her and ask, “Have you ever thought of running?”

Rakuita was only 24 years old when she decided to run for the Utah Legislature against the incumbent in her district, Adam Robertson, a father of three. Rakuita graduated from BYU in 2018 with a degree in sociology. While in college, she learned about communities and social issues and became passionate about making a difference. 

In 2020, Rakuita took the jump and ran for the Utah House of Representatives in District 63. Although she did not win, she said it allowed her to reflect.

“There’s often this thought you have to wait until you meet all of these accomplishments or your life looks a certain way or you’ve reached a certain age in order to run for office,” she said. The men running for office do not think that way, so women should not need to either, she added.

The opportunity to reflect did not mean the decision to run and the campaigning process were easy. There were many barriers Rakuita faced, one of which was feeling like she didn’t belong.

“I didn’t fit the typical mold of someone who should, in other people’s eyes, be running for office. That created a lot of imposter syndrome,” Rakuita said, adding that she faced microaggressions in her decision to run. Some people made comments on how they didn’t see the worth of someone her age running for government office. 

Despite this, she still had support from many others. She said once she had formed her team and started knocking on doors, running for office began to feel more accessible. 

Women in political history

Women have been present in the U.S. Congress for only 106 years, although Congress has been in session since 1789. Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1916. Rankin was from Montana and served in the U.S. House of Representatives. She was elected four years before the 19th amendment was added to the Constitution, allowing women to vote. 

Two charts show how many women hold seats in the U.S. House and Senate. Women make up about half of the population but don’t make up half of the seats in either the U.S. House or Senate. (Made in Canva by Kate Parrish)

A research study from the Utah Women & Leadership Project found that “Utah has never elected a woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.” The most recent woman to serve in the U.S. House from Utah was Mia Love, who served from 2015–2019. Love was the first woman to be elected from Utah to serve in Congress since 1995.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, “3.1% of all members of Congress to date have been women.” As of 2022, only 24 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate and 120 of the 435 seats in the U.S. House are held by women.

Sarah Brinton, founder of Elect Women Utah, said it’s shocking anything has to be said about the lack of women in government offices in 2022. Brinton said dividing men and women is “the oldest divide. If you had to divide humanity into two categories, the most basic divide classically is men versus women. Just saying it feels a little retro.”

Women often choose not to run because of valid feelings that stop them, and women need to learn how to bypass them, Rakuita said. Brinton agreed, saying women choosing not to run for office is “the result of very sane, reasonable decisions. The cumulative effect is a continued distortion.”

Need for support

Support is a crucial part of getting women to run for office, according to Brinton. Elect Women Utah focuses on encouraging women to run for office and offering resources to help them in their campaigning process.

Brinton said women need more support to run for office than male candidates. Women already have a lot on their plates. To convince them to run, Brinton said family and community can work together to offer rides to school for the kids and other services. 

Audrey Perry, CEO and founder of Project Elect, gave the same advice as Brinton. Project Elect is an organization that helps women who belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints run for office. 

Perry said a lack of support can be a formidable problem and women are more likely to win when they have big endorsements. Project Elect offers many resources to support women who run for office, such as a Facebook group where they can talk with women who hold elected office, learn from each other and find solace in shared trials.

Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox released a study in 2013 titled “Girls Just Wanna Not Run: The Gender Gap in Young Americans’ Political Ambition.” This study focused on various factors that make young women more hesitant about going into political careers.

The study found that when family members, teachers and mentors encourage young women to consider a political career, it can “mitigate the gender gap in ambition.”

Lawless and Fox also discovered that young women need to be nudged and they need to know running for office is an option. Their report said, “The seeds are often planted for an eventual candidacy early in life, often by the time women and men are college students.”

Rakuita received a nudge from her friend to run for office. Perry said it takes an average of seven asks for a woman to run for political office.

Brinton said women do a disservice to themselves and others when they say things like “I would never run for office.”

“Once you say that, anyone else you talk to is like, ‘But why would you never? Is it shameful to run? Is it shameful to think that you could run? Is it crazy?’” Brinton said.

Need to compete

In the study “Girls Just Wanna Not Run,” researchers found that “Spurring young women to immerse themselves in competitive environments such as organized sports can go a long way in reinforcing the competitive spirit associated with interest in a future candidacy.”

Both Perry and Brinton said the language people use when talking about running for office is competitive.

“Political language is the language of war,” Perry said. When talking about running for politics people use words like “campaign” and “battle.”

“Very few women I know wake up in the morning and think ‘I’d love to attack someone today! Or be attacked!’”

Sarah Brinton, founder of Elect Women Utah

Brinton said the election system the U.S. has created to elect individuals might be flawed because of its competitiveness.

“It’s a situation in which the way you get into the position of power is very different than the way that position of power is held well,” Brinton said.

Voters choose people in the election process who are good at competing, but then they bring those skills into the legislature where it needs to be more collaborative, Brinton said.

“Competitive spaces typically favor men,” said Abby Woodfield, president of the BYU Political Affairs Society student chapter. “They’re socialized in ways that promote those sorts of behaviors. Women aren’t; they’re told not to be confrontational.”

Jessica Preece, a BYU political science professor, conducted a study titled “Why women don’t run: Experimental evidence on gender differences in political competition aversion.” This study was done as part of The Gender and Civic Engagement Lab, which focuses on understanding what motivates women to run for office. 

For the experiment, they divided men and women into two different groups and asked them to read statements about politics. One statement was the control and the other statement emphasized the competitiveness of politics. 

In Preece’s study, she concluded, “Women’s aversion to competitive environments leads them to be less interested in learning about running for office when they are primed to consider the competitive nature of politics.”

Whether men received the control statement or the competitive statement did not have an impact on their political ambitions.

Women’s aversion to the political world is not because of a lack of qualifications: Preece’s study also found women earn “about 57% of the undergraduate and 60% of the master’s degrees in the United States.”

Need for a new path

Brinton said the paths women take for campaigning are different than the paths men take. Additionally, women receive donations in smaller amounts than men do, so women need to ask more people to gain as much funding.

Brinton said she read about a campaign manager comparing the campaigns she had led for Black women versus white men: The manager stated they have to be run differently. 

Often the Black women who have been encouraged to run by their communities already have their arms full, so the community has to step in and help in other areas so these women can run for office. Meanwhile, the white male clients have more time in their lives and aren’t relied upon for the same things, so they have more bandwidth to work on their campaigns, the manager said.

In Rakuita’s campaign experience, she said her team had to pave their own way; no one had tried to mobilize students before because of the systematic barriers. 

“There was a lot of groundwork and foundational things that we had to do to pave a way for ourselves during that campaign because we didn’t have a lot of reference groups. The more that paving can happen in campaigns that don’t look like the norm, the more it creates pathways for other people,” Rakuita said.

Perry said she began Project Elect because a woman in her ward wanted to change something in the schools, created her own grassroots campaign and was successful. 

Brinton described a seminar where a campaign manager gave a strict outline of the ways a campaign should be run and gave her clients very little personal time. An Orthodox Jewish woman stood up and said, “Are you telling me I can’t be successful running for office if I observe the Sabbath? That’s not what I’m here for. I don’t want everyone else to tell me what has always been done.”

When women go into politics, Brinton said they often talk to experts who tell them how things have always been and what they have to do. She said the experts may be right, “but it’s also the way it’s always been done and we’re looking for a new way. I think they’re wrong to the extent they’re making assumptions that it has to be done this way.”

Brinton said she recently spoke with a woman who had a disability and wanted to run for office but couldn’t knock on doors because it was difficult to move and made her tired. But she didn’t want to give up. Brinton said she kept telling her, “‘I guess she can’t run for office’ is ‘an unacceptable answer.’”

“Let’s try a new way. Maybe it’ll take a couple iterations, maybe we’ll have to do some experimentation but we can figure it out,” Brinton said.

The future is female

Rakuita said it’s important for women to get involved either by running or helping in a campaign because it helps pave new pathways to success.

Woodfield said seven of her club officials are women and three are men. BYU College Democrats co-president Abby Ryan said there are lots of women in the club, probably more than men. 

“Women and men have different perspectives. They have different voices, different experiences. That informs their policy and it informs their decisions in politics,” Woodfield said. 

There are gender gaps between political parties in every country, which emphasizes the need for more women in politics worldwide. Woodfield said women approach problems differently than men so more problem-solvers are needed in government positions.

“In our personal lives we often turn to women to do the emotional work,” Brinton said. “We’re not worried about that in our private lives and yet somehow in politics we think women can’t handle it, don’t have the skill set, won’t be resilient in that space and I just have to think that’s inaccurate.”

Brinton said women already fulfill roles that give them the qualifications to run for office and provide experience. “They underscore this, but being a PTA president is relevant to being a state legislator, being a Relief Society president is relevant. Those are exactly the same skill sets,” she said.

To hear more from Sarah Brinton, click on this link for the full interview.

Perry said the Church has created great programs with mentors to teach skills because it teaches public speaking skills from a young age by having the youth speak in sacrament meetings and teach lessons. Knowing who you are and knowing your divine nature can help when dealing with the double standards and trolls in politics, she added.

“If you have a desire to be involved within your community and you’ve ever thought about running, if there’s any part of you that thinks ‘I’m not qualified to do this, I don’t have what it takes to run for office’ … The men that are running are not thinking in similar ways to that,” Rakuita said.

One of Rakuita’s friends ran for a city council position and told her she might feel imposter syndrome because she doesn’t look like the majority of people in office since she is a young woman of color. Rakuita’s friend told her, “You’re gonna feel a lot of imposter syndrome, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not a good candidate and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be running.”

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