THE IMAGE OF FEMALE CANDIDATES


Mama Ida at Migori
Mama Ida at Migori

Women have experienced additional handicaps to election to higher political office, in part because of the public image of women of women as candidates. Women are still viewed socially in terms of domestic roles, whereas men are viewed in terms of occupational roles. Females politicians are viewed as interlopers in the political arena who should function behind the scenes rather than out front as candidates.

Female candidates, then, must convince the electorate that their home responsibilities are not too demanding to permit them to make the commitment required by the political officeholder. Because of the political liability regarding family responsibility that people associate with women, many female politicians are either single or widowed or do not become active in politics until after their children are adults.

The public perception that married female candidates in their childbearing years will neglect their familial duty if they run for and hold elective office affects the likelihood of women achieving the presidency in two ways. First, it reduces the pool of available female candidates acceptable to the public. Second, it delays the entry into elective politics of those women who choose to marry and have children. Many female candidates never recoup this lost ground. During the period when women are bearing and raising children, their male counterparts who aspire to the presidency are gaining formative experience at the sub-national and national levels. Men gain access to the requisite presidential launching roles on a schedule compatible with career advancement, whereas women face a substantially telescoped time frame, among other handicaps, for their advancement.

The negative image of women as candidates, especially those still in their childbearing years, continue to present a significant handicap. Election to political office requires the overt approval of over 50 percent of the electorate, in most case. There is still a proportion of voters who will not support female candidates simply because they are women. In highly competitive races and in races where an incumbent is being challenged – the typical races that women face – a successful candidate cannot afford to lose even a small fraction of that electorate automatically. Although the proportion of the electorate opposed to women on gender alone has been diminishing, this diminution is a slow process. Further, equality of opportunity in politics cannot be regulated or mandated given that it depends instead on shifts in public opinion. Some the changes in political opportunities and electoral success for women, then, depend to a large extent on the pace of social change.

Birth control has played a helpful role in increasing the number of women in politics by allowing women to control the number and timing of their offspring. This control is crucial for those who contemplate a political career, especially while public perceptions continue to make it difficult for women with small children to engage in high-level elective politics.
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