The XX Factor

Do Men Prefer Women in Office?

What are the factors that help women win national and statewide political races? Nate Silver of 538 fame adds to the conversation on this important topic-generations of K School graduates want to know!-with his latest analysis, ” The Palin Paradox: Women More Likely to be Elected in Male-Dominated Districts”:

Although women are still having a relatively tough time getting elected in general-they represent just 17 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress-Congresswomen, as opposed to Congress men , are more plentiful in areas where the male-to-female ratio is higher

Nine of the 25 most male-dominated districts (36 percent) most recently elected a woman to office, as compared with 4 of the 25 most female-dominated districts (16 percent). This alone is somewhat interesting-however, it actually conceals the strength of the relationship because female-dominated districts are more likely to vote Democratic, and Democratic-leaning districts are more likely to elect women to office regardless of their sex ratios …

The most male-dominated from among these strongly Democratic districts elected women in 10 out of 15 instances. The 15 most female districts elected just 3 women.

Intriguing, to be sure. But as we all know, correlation is not causation. Silver, of course, also knows this and says the effect held even after he controlled for a wide variety of demographic factors. But what if the issue is not demographics, but geography? We also know that women do better in political districts that don’t have strong machine-style Democratic political organizations. As Harold Meyerson observed in 2008:

When we look across the nation to ascertain which states have elected the most women to political office and which the least, it turns out that states once (or still) dominated by party machines don’t create a political culture in which women can thrive. Where entry into politics depends entirely on who sent you-on winning the backing of the boy-women often end up outside the clubhouse, the legislature, and the Congress.

Looking back at Silver’s analysis, it’s worth noting that of the top 15 Democratic-leaning, male-dominated, woman-electing districts, only two are not in Western states, where political machines are weaker. Meanwhile, of the top 15 Democratic-leaning, female-dominated, male-electing districts, none are Western, and many are well known for having a history-and even present-of robust Democratic political machines. As between Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Alaska, Arizona, Texas and Colorado, the states with the more liberal political reputations also have the more entrenched associational networks for promoting individuals for public office.

Silver hints in the direction of a geography effect, writing, ” Perhaps in male-dominated areas, women are more likely to violate traditional sex roles including something like running for political office, which has traditionally been a male-dominated occupation - the Sarah Palin frontierswoman caricature works well here.” His commenters take it a step further, noting that women’s suffrage was acheived earlier in the Western states than back East.

The frontierswoman caricature arose not because of-or not just because of-gender imbalances in frontier populations, but also becuase the demands of life in the emerging states required women to cast aside many behaviors typical of women of their day back East.