Brittany Collins Kaufman | March 29, 2017
After Hillary Clinton became the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in June 2016 — the first woman in American history nominated for president by a major political party — she tweeted a picture of her dancing with a young girl. The caption read, “To every little girl who dreams big: Yes, you can be anything you want — even president. Tonight is for you.”
It’s widely assumed that female politicians serve as role models to other women and girls, inspiring them to become politically engaged. Research on the subject, however, has produced mixed results on the actual extent of this effect.
In a paper recently published in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities, two University of Notre Dame political scientists take a closer look at the influence of female politicians as role models. They found that although the role model effect is real, it comes with nuance: Only new and viable female candidates had an effect, and the effect applied only to young women.
Christina Wolbrecht, associate professor of political science, and David Campbell, Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy and chair of the Department of Political Science, employed a panel design, a first in this area of study, to examine female politicians’ influence. The pair studied female candidates for major offices — U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governor — and their effects on female political engagement using data from the 2006-07 Faith Matters survey, taken at a time when Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House and Clinton announced her first run for presidency.
Wolbrecht and Campbell focused on both viable candidates, who are more likely to garner more attention, and new candidates who were running for seats held by men.
“Most studies of the role model effect look at the impact of the presence of female role models on all women,” said Wolbrecht. “One of our central contributions was to focus on the importance of age.”