Seeing Women Slay Matters

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By multiple measures, America’s women athletes are winning the Rio Olympics.

For the second consecutive summer games, women are more than half of all athletes on Team USA. After the first 10 days of competition, they won 62% of the gold medals earned by the U.S. team; U.S. women won 12 individual and four team gold medals through Monday out of 26 total gold medals awarded thus far. U.S. women athletes also earned about half of the remaining medals that have kept the USA at the top of the medal count in Rio.

Included among these wins have been myriad firsts: Simone Manuel was the first African American woman to medal in Olympic swimming and Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first American Muslim woman to compete and medal wearing a hijab in competition. Women have not only broken barriers, but shattered records: Katie Ledecky swept golds in individual events while breaking a world record, Simone Biles has already won more gold medals than any woman in U.S. Olympic history Kim Rhode captured a medal in her sixth consecutive Olympics and cyclist Kristen Armstrong became the first U.S. woman to win a gold in the same event in three consecutive Olympics.

These women will be joined by others over the next week, further cementing the Rio Olympics as a success for U.S. women athletes. But U.S. women are not only winning competitions in the pool or on the mat, course or court. Just over a week before the games opened, Hillary Clinton became the first woman nominee for president from a major political party.

These victories, across sports and spheres, have elicited at least one shared reaction—that they will inspire future generations of women and girls to compete. Social media is awash with photos and stories of parents allowing their daughters to stay up late to watch Hillary Clinton accept the Democratic nomination, and similar posts of parents sharing women athletes’ Olympic wins with the young women in their lives. The motivation to do so, it seems, aligns with the long-held idea that “seeing is believing,” and that watching women compete at the highest levels will ensure that girls and young women consider themselves just as capable of competing and succeeding as their male counterparts.

But does—and will—it work?

Political scientists have investigated the symbolic effects of women’s candidacies and/or representation on women’s political interest and engagement, finding some evidence that more women on the ballot or in office can alter women’s beliefs about and participation in politics. But few studies have looked specifically at the effects of female political role models on young women. One of the few studies that has, conducted by David Campbell and Christina Wolbrecht, provides the best evidence that having a woman topping the presidential ticket this year matters for future generations of girls. Their 2006 study found a significant relationship between the visibility of women politicians and adolescent girls’ stated intentions to be politically active. More specifically, they find “girls are more likely to envision themselves as politically active when and where they see women run viable campaigns for high-profile political offices.”

This finding helps to justify parents’ decisions to allow late night viewing, but Campbell and Wolbrecht’s research also illuminates an important – and potentially unexpected – way that the role model effect works between women running and young women’s potential political activity. Testing three different mechanisms, they find that seeing women successfully compete doesn’t necessarily inspire engagement by altering expectations of gender-appropriate roles or transforming views of government as more responsive to things women care about. Instead, as they report, “Visible female candidates trigger conversations about politics between parents and their adolescent daughters, familiarizing girls with the political world and leading them to envision themselves as participants in politics.” In other words, seeing women run sparks conversations that may open the door for young women to believe they can, want to, or will be encouraged to consider participating in politics themselves.

Another study from Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox finds that young women are less likely than young men (aged 18-25) to report engaging in political discussions and also less likely to say they have been encouraged by their parents to run for office. They are also less likely than their male counterparts to say they have considered running for political office. Perhaps the prominence of the first female presidential nominee will make those discussions, and even that encouragement, more likely in young women’s lives. And if Campbell and Wolbrecht’s findings hold in this case, those discussions may boost young women’s propensity for political participation of various types.

Similar conversations may matter when it comes to athletic competition. Celebrating women’s wins in Rio may do more than simply alter expectations of what women can and should do, but also spur discussions that cue young women to consider their own capacity to compete. And perhaps these effects can cross spheres; watching women win in high-stakes contests – athletic or political – may spark the competitive spirit that is necessary for both. Of course, seeing Hillary Clinton on the stage or women athletes on the Olympic podium will not alone alter generations of social and political norms that have discounted women’s ability and discouraged their ambition to compete in these arenas. But these images help to expand what we —men or women—can imagine.

So let’s take this moment to talk about women slaying in summer 2016—because these conversations matter.

Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is owned by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar.