2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the famous Year of the Woman, when Barbara Boxer, Carol Moseley Braun, Dianne Feinstein and Patty Murray were all elected to the U.S. Senate, joining Senators Nancy Kassebaum and Barbara Mikulski. They broke the record for the number of female senators serving at the same time. Thirty years later, the number of women in Congress has increased from one-tenth to more than a quarter.
We are now on the verge of what I hope will be another historic wave of women’s representation—this time in governors’ offices. More than a dozen women are running for governor across the country, and it’s clear that women candidates have made great progress. However, women running for governor are still held back by sexist stereotypes and double standards.
Throughout American history, men have dominated governorships. Forty-one men currently serve as governor—whereas only 45 women have ever served as governor in the entire history of our country. Nineteen states have never had a woman governor. For women of color, the barriers to executive office are even higher—no Black or Native American woman has ever been governor of her state.
Forty-one men currently serve as governor—whereas only 45 women have ever served as governor in the entire history of our country. No Black or Native American woman has ever been governor of her state.
Male leadership has been self-perpetuating, but that is changing. Research from my organization, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, shows that when voters see women in executive office, it breaks an “imagination barrier,” helping them envision women in top leadership roles. Other research shows that women in executive office are strong leaders who can effectively manage crises like COVID-19 and enact transformational policies to help communities.
Yet my foundation’s recent research also found that women running for governor this year still have obstacles on their path, including incumbent women governors who have announced they are running for reelection.
An important criterion for a woman running for governor is her “likeability.” Our polling shows that people perceive a woman’s effectiveness linked to her likeability. Unfortunately, women must still win over voters based on appearance and demeanor before their achievements stand out.
Our research also shows voters continue to hold women candidates to a higher standard about their qualifications. Voters have long claimed that women leaders must prove they can handle a crisis, and during the pandemic, women governors have done just that—yet they continue to face backlash, including calls for their impeachment and threats against their lives. When participants in recent focus groups were asked to picture a hypothetical governor, a majority still envisioned a man.
The good news is that my foundation’s research reveals ways women can leap over the obstacles on their paths. Women gubernatorial candidates earn voters’ approval by highlighting their achievements, talking about their efforts to help small businesses, improving public schools, and providing children with healthcare. These achievements demonstrate women candidates’ effectiveness and likeability in one fell swoop.
Women candidates earn voters’ respect by responding to attacks quickly and with confidence. When there is an attack on a woman’s record, if it lingers, it can make her seem weak and hesitant. However, when a candidate reclaims her narrative with specifics about her accomplishments, she passes a test for strong leadership and convinces voters she can withstand any storm.
For all of the challenges facing women running for executive office, their prospects are much brighter now than when I started this work more than 20 years ago. Thanks to the 1992 Year of the Woman—and all the women who have followed in their footsteps—electing women is becoming the norm, and voters are getting more comfortable seeing women hold executive office.
With so many qualified women serving as governor and running for governor across the country, we are making monumental changes and dismantling sexist stereotypes and double standards. Let’s make 2022 another Year of the Woman—so that electing women governors is not a fad but a fact of life.