The 2018 Year of the Woman and the Role Model Effect

Emma Lewis

The Year of the Woman is defined by historic political victories for women, the #MeToo movement, and women like Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford who demand to be heard. Women won a record 36 new seats in the House of Representatives, increasing the total number of women in the House to 102, the largest amount in history.  The majority of the first-time candidates are Democrats, some of diverse ethnic, religious, sexual identities, including the youngest women ever elected to Congress (Salam 2018).

Across the nation, and across the globe, women seem to be taking a stand.  But there is still more that needs to be done to ensure gender equity both at home and abroad.  Even as women comprise a larger share of the federal lawmakers, women in the United States may not be experiencing a similar increase in quality of life.  Many believe that the gains made in the 1992 Year of the Woman have been negated or reversed in the years since.  While one hopes that bringing women to the table will allow for their interests to be prioritized, it is imperative to acknowledge that “women’s rights” is not a monolithic issue with a consensus on what its substantive content is.  The interests that women care about are as diverse as they are, so the elected representatives that speak and act for them should advocate for the variety of policies that will benefit the women they represent (Alvaré, “A ‘Year of the Woman’ won’t be enough”).

To ensure that the 2018 Year of the Woman remains a sustained movement, the Year of the Woman must become the Yearsof the Women, by which I mean that female candidates must throw their hats into the political ring in every election cycle, and that there needs to be many hats of diverse colors, shapes, and styles.  We need to smash glass ceilings in every election, and to do that we need women in every generation running.  The role model effect will play a significant role in achieving this ideal.  As young women are increasingly more likely to see women running competitive and successful bids for elected offices at every level, they may become more likely to be politically-engaged and even run for office themselves.  This chapter will examine to what extent female candidates in the 2018 midterm elections created a role model effect for young college-aged women.


Women in the U.S. Political Context

The Role Model Effect

Campbell and Wolbrecht define the role model effect as the basic intuition that the presence of descriptive representatives will transform the political engagement of fellow group members.  Descriptive representatives serve to inspire and to be an example to other group members.  Increasing descriptive representation of women has long been advocated for by those who claim that compensation for past and present injustices, representation of overlooked interests, and legitimacy of democratic institutions should be priorities (Campbell and Wolbrecht, 2006).

Male candidates are less likely to create a role model effect for young men and boys in the same way that female candidates inspire young women and girls to engage in the political sphere.  Positions of power are already understood to be open to men because of how American culture socializes males to be ambitious and confident in pursuit of their career goals.  Evidence that political power is attainable for them is redundant (Campbell and Wolbrecht, 2006).

Under certain conditions, visible female role models in politics inspire young women to express a greater desire to participate in political activity in adulthood.  An increased propensity for political discussion, especially with friends and family, acts as a primer for young women to experience the role model effect.  This finding is contrary to the common belief that the role model effect occurs due to a shared belief in the necessity of political careers for women and the perception that government is unresponsive to women’s issues (Campbell and Wolbrecht, 2006).  Similarly, Gidengil et al. (2008) found that politically active mothers can have a role-model effect as they shape the political interests, knowledge, and participation of their daughters through female socialization.  It should be noted, however, that there is not unequivocal empirical support for the role model effect.

Party and ideology influence the role model effect of high-profile candidates. Based on the study done by Mariani et al. in 2015, Nancy Pelosi’s rise to House Speakership and Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination caused slightly higher levels of anticipated political engagement among young female liberals and significantly greater levels among young female Democrats.  A similar trend was not seen for young female conservatives and Republicans in the wake of Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential run.  The role model effect on women was limited to the presence of Democratic candidates but increases in political involvement were observed among moderate and conservative women as well as liberal and Democratic women.  This incongruency and counterintuitive finding may be explained by the way that women message to voters during their campaigns or the issues they prioritize. Additionally, the descriptive representation of liberal Democratic women through Democratic candidates may have a symbolic significance for women of different political affiliations that cause them to experience a role model effect (Mariani, Marshall, and Mathews-Schultz, 2015).

The assumption that gender is the most salient identity characteristic for women undergirds the role model effect.  However, this may not be the case for all young American women, making role-model theories inaccurate.  Voters may identify with candidates that share similar political, religious, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation characteristics to them before they consider gender.  This indeterminacy makes theories of political representation complex.


Theories of Representation

Descriptive representation of women has been clearly associated with the advancement of women’s interests in the policy-making process (Dovi 2002; Lawless 2004).  Descriptive representation refers “to the extent to which a representative resembles those being represented” (Dovi, “Political Representation”).  Significant concern for the descriptive representation of women in all aspects of political activity speaks to the continued underrepresentation of women in legislative roles and other levels of political organizations and institutions compared to men.  The chronic underrepresentation of women in the American political system conveys the message that women play an inferior role in politics and that the system is less responsive to women than men (Mariani et al, 2015).

Both scholars and activists have advocated for descriptive representation of women for many reasons, such as compensation for past and present injustice, provision of a voice for overlooked interests, and contribution to the legitimacy of liberal democracy.  Female politicians are expected to function as role models, inspiring other women and girls to become politically active.  However, in the United States, while some studies show that the presence of female politicians tends to affect women’s psychological conception of and engagement with politics, there is little evidence that a measurable impact on women’s active political participation results from the role model effect.  This is even more likely to be the case in other countries around the world where it is rare for women and girls to see other women in positions of political power. Where there are female role models, young women and girls are more likely to envision themselves as active participants in politics, even if they do not actually begin to participate.  (Wolbrecht and Campbell, 2007).

There is reason to hope for more gender equality in the future though, an exciting assertion for those who believe that representative democracies require thousands of candidates to come forward every year to throw their hats in the ring.  Cultivating political ambition in young women and girls is essential for a healthy democracy. To be fully democratic, a society must commit itself to including those who have been denied full political membership in political life.  Democratic institutions are frequently evaluated by their degree of diverse gender, ethnicity, and race representation, which implies an assumption that a lack of this representation of historically disadvantaged groups is illiberal and undemocratic.  An additional assumption is that an increase in the numbers of descriptive representatives of this group will increase their substantive representation as well.  Substantive representation refers to the actions taken by representatives “on behalf of, in the interest of, as an agent of, and as a substitute for the represented” (Dovi, “Political Representation”).  These assumptions have been supported by contemporary political theorists who seek to justify certain political practices that would guarantee positions for members of disadvantaged groups.  Proposed practices include party list quotas, caucuses, racial gerrymandering, and proportional representation models.  The presence of multiple dispossessed groups in American politics indicates a need for more descriptive representation so that the interests, opinions, and perspectives of all citizens are considered in the political process (Dovi 2002).


Political Socialization

A note on political socialization: the process by which people acquire semi-permanent political orientations toward politics and their political system begins in childhood.  Young women continue to be socialized in a way that causes them to internalize the belief that politics is a man’s world.  The reality of the American political system being dominated by wealthy white males reinforces this view, as well as the quintessential portrayal of the political arena through masculine imagery such as a battlefield or a boxing ring.  However, early intervention with exposure to female political role models may counterbalance the effects of female socialization, which begins in childhood. Growing up in a politicized household encourages more elite-level political activity, including aspirations of holding political office.  Having parents who are interested in politics can significantly reduce the gender gap in political engagement (Gidengil et al, 2008).

The findings of Fox and Lawless in their 2014 study of the origins of the gender gap in political ambition reveal that patterns of gendered political socialization have powerful effects on young citizens’ likelihood to run for office in their adult lives.  Early life experiences are crucial in shaping future interest in candidacy, especially encouragement from family and peers, primary and secondary school education, and media influences.  Political ambition is shaped in much the same way as political interest, activism, ideology, and party affiliation.  However, actual participation in competitive activities such as running for office requires a certain self-confidence and willingness to become a candidate.

Women and men rely on the same factors to develop their political ambition, but young males are more likely to have the formative experiences on which to base their confidence, such as encouragement from family, teachers, peers, and media.  This could not be truer than in college when the gender gap in political ambition is as large as it is among professionals in the candidate eligibility pool (Fox and Lawless, 2014).  Additionally, female potential candidates are far less likely than their male counterparts to consider political candidacy as a viable career choice, even when they share similar qualifications and professional experience (Fox and Lawless, 2010; 2005).  The misconception that politics is not an appropriate field for women to pursue careers in affects how influential forces encourage or discourage women to run for office.

Factors that lead to low levels of political ambition among women are long-standing and deeply rooted in society.  Political socialization, sexist stereotypes about women’s political ability, gender bias among party officials, perceived low levels of political efficacy, and lower levels of political knowledge are factors contributing to the lack of women in all levels of political organization and the difficulty in recruiting women to careers in politics (Pruysers and Blais, 2018).  The study conducted by Pruysers and Blais in 2018 found a relatively low baseline level of political ambition among college-aged men and women.  The majority of respondents had never considered a career in politics, thought that they would not be very successful in a career in politics, and expressed no desire for a political career in a hypothetical scenario where they could choose their ideal job.  Gender is not the only factor that impacts a women’s political ambition, however. Party affiliation may interact with the role model effect in significant ways, some of which are discussed later in this chapter.


Investigating the Impact of the Role Model Effect on Women

An Overview of Focus Group Interviews

A focus group is characterized by a technique of information collection which tends to be unstandardized, based on an informal discussion, among a group of people, in the presence of a moderator, and focused on a topic as established by the researcher and the research group.  The focus group consists of a small cohort of individuals that are selected and convened by the researcher for the purpose of contributing to the area of research through a group discussion.  The exchange of ideas and opinions by the participants through continuous interaction and debate is the central generator of information to be collected by the researcher (Cataldi 2017).

The dynamics of interaction between subjects, and between subjects and the moderator, are both a product and a condition of focus group research.  This relational dimension is inevitable and constitutive of the process of constructing the information that is to be collected.  Focus groups are characterized by a socio-emotional component which indicates that the technique requires great investment of energies by the moderator to create social integration.  The moderator must reassure, praise, and appreciate the interviewees (Cataldi 2017).

Collecting information from a focus group is less efficient than other techniques such as conducting individual in-depth interviews.  However, focus groups are more confrontational than the “ping pong” interaction between an interviewer and a single interviewee. The sharing and comparing that occurs between participants in a focus group can lead to clashes and disagreements. Oftentimes, the moderator is unable to hold the reins of the group which can lead to interesting content generation, but can also cause the moderator to lose control of the discussion to unproductive tension and argument.  Focus groups also allow for great variability in the structure of the interaction, moderation style, and research outcomes.  Indeed, even if the same group with the same moderator comes together twice to achieve the same task, congruent results are not guaranteed.  Also, one can never recreate the identical dynamics of interaction at a different time (Cataldi 2017).


Why I Chose Focus Group Interviews

My research design was inspired by Katherine J. Cramer’s study in The Politics of Resentment(Cramer 2016) which examined rural political consciousness and the resentment of the “liberal elite” in Wisconsin, specifically surrounding the re-election of Scott Walker. To collect her data, Cramer entered into the conversations with “ordinary people”.  She believes that, for the purpose of finding out why people think the way they do, there is “no better substitute than listening to them in depth.” This ethnographic approach is similar to focus group interviews, the method of data collection that I have utilized in my research.  I employ this method to attempt to discern how college-aged women were influenced by the unprecedented number of female candidates who ran in the 2018 midterm election.  I wanted to engage the participants in discussion that would allow for the “fleshing out” of ideas and perspectives that shape how these young women think about American politics, elections, and their own political ambition.  For a list of the questions prepared for focus group interviews, see Appendix C: Focus Group Script.

The goal of my research is not to show causality or to explicitly state that the presences of female candidates in the 2018 midterms positively increased college-aged women’s desire to run for office themselves.  Rather, the goal is to illuminate how the perspectives that these women have of the midterm election specifically, and women in leadership and the current political climate generally, fit into our understanding of American politics.  My goal is to examine how people combine attitudes and identities – womanhood, specifically – to create perceptions of themselves and others that they then use to make sense of the political environment.

By studying the political ambition of young women in real time, as opposed to relying on retrospective assessments of events that previously occurred and the feelings and actions they inspired, we can get a more accurate understanding of the role model effect.  Evidence favoring a role model effect would have a normative implication, especially in the face of continuing sex and gender disparities in political engagement and leadership.  Women are not having their voices heard at all, or not heard as loudly as men, in their nation’s democratic processes (Wolbrecht and Campbell, 2007).


How I Conducted Focus Group Interviews

The research involves interview procedures where data was recorded, which enabled the identification of participants.  The participant population was twenty (20) undergraduate women from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  Data was collected through face-to-face interviews using the focus group technique.  All participants were eighteen (18) years of age or older and identify as a woman.

Individuals were invited to volunteer to participate in a focus group interview by signing up in advance on a Google Form sign-up sheet distributed via email and Facebook groups for each class year of the undergraduate students (see Appendix D: Link to Google Form Sign-Up Sheet).  Volunteers were asked to sign up by providing a name, phone number, and school email address, and indicated their preferred method of communication.  All information collected for the purposes of recruiting participants was destroyed immediately after the research concluded.  Participants were offered a five-dollar ($5) Starbucks gift card as a token of appreciation upon completing the focus group interview.

There were no foreseeable risks to physical, mental, and social health of participants.  In the event that a participant became upset or distressed, I, as moderator, was prepared to end the interview immediately.  Participants were informed of their freedom to leave the focus group at any time, and they were reminded of their right to do so at multiple stages of the process, including on the informed consent form.  I had on hand information for the Muhlenberg College Counseling Center and was prepared to provide this information to any participant that requested such information.

Informed consent documentation clearly communicates the voluntary nature of focus group, the guarantee that all information from the focus group would remain confidential, and the participants’ right to withdraw at any time.  My contact information was included on informed consent documentation should participants have had any questions or wished to obtain additional information about the study and its purposes.

Data was collected with audio recording and note taking.  First names, last names, and class years were the only identifiers that were used during the focus groups, and they were eliminated after the research concluded, allowing for anonymity of participants and responses. Audio recording and notes were stored on researcher’s personal laptop and were destroyed after the research concluded.  Focus group participants were anticipated to share some personal information, but no personal or sensitive information was reported.  Participants were required to keep the names of other participants and the responses of others confidential.


Benefits & Drawbacks of Focus Group Interviews

Participants in focus groups alter or contradict their responses after interaction and discussion with other participants.  Topics may be discussed to a greater extent and comments may be made more frequently by some participants than others, denoting that the topic is more important or of significant interest to participants.  Participants may speak about a topic with special intensity or depth of feeling, using words that indicate their passion or directly telling the moderator that they feel strongly about the topic.  Intensity is difficult, or nearly impossible, to discern from a transcript or impersonal paper survey because it is communicated through tone of voice, speed, and emphasis on certain words (Krueger 2002).

There are advantages to interviewing participants face-to-face in an inclusive, free-flowing, conversational setting, such as the ability to gauge intensity.  There are also certain drawbacks to this method, such as the specificity of responses that are based on participants’ personal experiences that limit generalizability of results.  However, as stated previously, the goal of focus group research is not wide generalizability, but greater understanding of how individual perceptions shape participants’ interactions with politics.


Political Context of Muhlenberg College

Any analysis of the perspectives of students from Muhlenberg must be prefaced by a discussion of the demographic and political context of the college and a description of the campus climate leading up to the 2018 midterm elections. First, it should be noted that the Seegers Union student hub is a polling place for Lehigh County.  Therefore, students are confronted with the practice of voting on the day of an election whether or not they choose to register to vote on campus, which many Muhlenberg students choose to do, especially those who are Pennsylvania natives.  Second, there is a student-run, bipartisan political club called BergVotes that sponsors voter registration drives and other events throughout each semester to promote political awareness, engagement, education, and discussion on campus.  These events are more frequent during semesters of election years, such as Spring and Fall 2018.  BergVotes contributed to a campus-wide effort to increase voter turnout among students, faculty, and staff.  Examples of the events that BergVotes sponsored in the months and weeks leading up to the 2018 midterms include an Issues Expo, Roundtable Discussions, and a Meet the Candidate event that brought our current Congresswoman, Susan Wild, as well as other local and state officials to campus.  Muhlenberg has previously had relatively low voter turnout as compared to other similarly situated, liberal arts institutions.  Due in part to BergVotes, turnout increased in 2016, and results are expected to have increased in 2018 as well.

Additionally, the demographic profile of the focus group participants is not representative of Muhlenberg as a whole, which itself is not representative of a greater general population, be that at the local, state, or national level. The gender ration at Muhlenberg is approximately 6:4, female to male students, and the large majority of students are white, Christian or Jewish, and from middle- to upper-class socioeconomic status.  While the focus group interview utilized in this research study did not include a survey of participants’ demographic information, it should be noted that some participants identified themselves voluntarily as racial, ethnic, and sexual identity minorities throughout the course of their interviews.  Finally, many, though not all, of the participants identified themselves as Political Science majors or minors, although this was not a requirement for participation in the research.  This campus context and demographic profile both serve to bias the results of this research in a way that can be viewed as a limitation, but also as a strength.  Though the findings are ungeneralizable, they are not insignificant.  College-educated and politically-engaged young people are part of the recruitment pool that party organizations and officials look to for potential candidates.  Therefore, the biased nature of the participant profile may be seen as entirely appropriate in this case.


Findings from Focus Group Interviews

Focus group interviews were conducted seven times with a total of 20 participants.  The interviews were structured as three phases: the first concerned with baseline attitudes toward running for office and opinions regarding women in positions of leadership, the second focusing the discussion on the 2018 midterm elections specifically, and the third capturing any change in the participants attitudes toward running for office that may be considered evidence of the role model effect.  Offered below are summaries of the participants’ responses to each phase of the focus group interview.


Phase 1: General Attitudes and Opinions

While some participants view running for office as “cool”, “awesome”, and a great opportunity, they do not necessarily see themselves running for office due to envisioned career paths that do not involve holding political office. Respondents that have taken Political Science courses may be expected to have thought about running for elected office, whether this perception is accurate or not.  Of those who said that they had considered running, most were involved with the Political Science department at Muhlenberg.  Additionally, those who described growing up with politically active parents were likely to respond that they had considered running before.  Some participants expressed hesitancy or disinterest in running for office due to the public nature of life as a political official and the intense scrutiny under which they usually come while campaigning or in office.  One participant did relate her belief that they have begun to consider running for office now that getting elected is seen as a possibility.

Encouragement from friends and family, in these cases, do little to change participants’ level of political ambition but causes them to contemplate the possibility or how realistic running for office in the future would be, and how successful they might be.  One respondent said that she had not been encouraged to run for office by anyone but herself, and that seeing Hillary Clinton run for President in 2008, when the respondent was in fourth grade, was the moment that lit the spark within herself that first formed her desire to run for office, clear evidence of the role model effect.  Other participants spoke of offhand comments of encouragement from relatives or mentors that could have been considered insincere or taken as a joke.  Those who identified themselves as Political Science majors believed that their classes and experiences have caused them to think about running for office.

Participants expressed excitement and pride when asked how they feel when they see women in positions of leadership.  They applaud the perception that women are stepping up and taking positions of authority that have traditionally be held by men, especially in male-dominated fields such as economics and politics.  They feel encouraged and empowered to do the same thing, that if other women can achieve such heights then they should be able to do so too.  Participants emphasized the importance of women having the same opportunities as men so that they can change the general perception that women do not belong in leadership positions.  Many felt that in the male-dominated field of politics, women get pushed to the side and their opinions get dismissed.  Participants who identify as women of color expressed their particular excitement when seeing women of color run for and win elected positions because of their ability to descriptively and substantively represent a community marginalized within the greater population of women in the country.  One participant related the way that seeing her mother in positions of leadership at the institution she teaches at had shown her that women can be strong leaders in positions of authority, suggesting that the role model effect is not exclusive to political candidates.


Phase 2: The 2018 Midterms

Respondents noted that the 2018 midterms elections seemed to be different than previous election cycles for a variety of reasons.  The novelty and number of female candidates were often mentioned, as well as the perception that candidates ran due to a desire to make a change in the state of the country, of which they were not satisfied.  The election of 2016 and the presidency of Donald Trump were frequently cited as a shaping force of candidate pool as well as the outcomes of the 2018 midterms.

Of those participants that expressed any level of knowledge about the 2018 midterm elections, most were followers of political news from a variety of sources, including The New York Times, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, Washington Post, NPR, as well as social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  These participants identified themselves as “politically-inclined”, in tune with political news, or knowledgeable about the 2018 elections.  Respondents who are not Political Science majors expressed the belief that political news did not affect them or their field.  Additionally, the perception was communicated that college students are less inclined to care about political news until they graduate and enter the “real world”, and maybe not even then.  Those who only tangentially learn about political news from family or friends hear most about the negative stories concerning candidates and other political actors.  Many participants described their news habits as reliant on notifications from news apps that they have programmed to pop up when new political headlines are published, evidence that the way Americans consume news is increasingly connected to technological advances.

In most focus group interviews, social media was brought up by multiple participants.  Noted as a significant source of news as well as an aspect of election politics that stuck out to them compared to other election cycles, social media was discussed at length.  Social media was named as a main factor in young people’s decision to vote on Election Day due to the spread of political awareness and efforts of voter mobilization that occured online.  One participant related the story of her involvement in a Facebook page that many residents from her hometown are a part of where political discussion occurs and oftentimes devolves into heated arguments.

Participants also perceived an increase in excitement throughout American society leading up to the 2018 midterm, and some believed that the surge of emotion was first triggered by the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump.  Those participants who were Political Science majors displayed a wider base of knowledge regarding the 2018 election, candidates, popular issues, results, and implications.  Many expressed the perception that there was a unique energy or excitement within the new generation of voters that they and their peers are a part of leading up to the midterms, which they felt was novel in 2018.

When asked if any specific candidates in the 2018 election cycle stuck out to them, the most frequent response in the affirmative named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  Other high-profile candidates named include Nancy Pelosi, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Stacey Abrams, and Beto O’Rourke.  One participant spoke about her excitement when she had the opportunity to vote for and see elected the first female legislator from her home town in the Midwest.  Students at Muhlenberg were also more likely to be exposed to the campaign of Susan Wild in the 7thCongressional district, of which Muhlenberg’s campus is a part of.  Thus, respondents who mentioned her as a significant candidate could be expected to have their perceptions influenced by their location during the 2018 campaign season and election.  Overall, the discussion in each interview centered on Democratic candidates, mostly the incoming freshmen class of women to the House of Representatives.  One respondent highlighted her perception of the anti-establishment sentiment amongst these candidates and throughout the American electorate that shaped the midterms.

When asked to characterize the women who run for and hold political office, respondents spoke of the necessity of thick skin to deal with the large amount of criticism that female politicians receive compared to their male counterparts.  It was noted that these women also have to be driven, tough, and resilient in order to face and overcome the obstacles that stand in their way toward elected office. Respondents also highlighted the strength that women who seek and attain political office must have in their morals and beliefs, and how they will experience pushback from those who oppose them that could easily break another, weaker women’s resolve.  While many participants voiced their perception that the political environment is becoming more welcoming to women, they acknowledged the fact that there is more room for improvement in this regard and the hope that this change would not be an anomaly in 2018 but evidence of a greater shift in American political consciousness.

The political climate is perceived by these young women to be extremely polarized and divisive.  Some mention the seemingly unwelcoming treatment of immigrants who wish to come to the United States, and the general mistreatment and discrimination that people of color continue to experience within our borders.  A lack of acceptance of those of marginalized or minority identity has been perceived by some of the participants, while others believed that the nation has made progress toward being more inclusive at the societal and governmental levels.  Similarly, respondents viewed the nation as making strides toward gender equity, while others are unconvinced that anything has changed the level of inclusivity in America.


Phase 3: Changes due to the Role Model Effect?

Few participants who were not already following political news expressed the belief that the 2018 midterms had inspired them to pay closer attention to the news.  A significant number of participants believe that as they get older, graduate college, and move into the “real world”, they will be more attentive to politics because their circumstances will necessitate such attention.  Those who were already avid followers of political news expressed the extreme likelihood that they would continue the practice, especially after their experience following the 2018 election.  Participants who identified themselves as new voters in 2018 or thereafter expressed the belief that they are or will become more attentive to political news now that they can participate in the political arena through the ballot box.

In general, participants did not express that they were more likely to support female candidates after the 2018 elections.  Most responded that they are just as likely now as they were before to support women seeking political office, or that they were willing to support whichever candidate most closely aligns with their political interests, regardless of the gender of the candidate.  Other participants said that they were already more likely to support female candidates before the 2018 midterms, and especially women of color and marginalized identity.  One candidate expressed that she was already more likely to support women before the 2018 midterms because she aligns with them more in terms of political views and personal identity, suggesting that descriptive representation was an important factor in her consideration of candidates.

Of those participants who responded at the start of the focus group interview that they had not thought about running for office before, most ended the session articulating the belief that the 2018 election had not changed their opinion.  Some participants rearticulated the fear of the “toll” that campaigning and serving in office takes on the personal life of candidates.  One participant believed that a politically-engaged citizen could “get more done” by affecting change outside of political office, such as through non-profit advocacy work or as a lawyer.  Others stated that they saw running for office after 2018 as a more realistic option for them after seeing so many women do it before them.


The Role Model Effect on Women at Muhlenberg

Of those participants who expressed interest in running for office, most grew up with political parents or identified formative experiences in their youth that caused them to consider a career in politics, a finding that confirms the literature reviewed in this chapter.  Of those participants who expressed knowledge of the 2018 midterm elections, most were followers of political news from a variety of media outlets, including traditional news and social media sites.  Of those participants who noted candidates that stuck out to them in the midterm election cycle, most referred to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic women of “firsts,” such as the first Muslim Congresswomen, indicating that the role model effect might be more influential from first-time or novel candidates.  Whether or not they expressed a desire to run for office themselves, every participant expressed a level of pride and excitement at seeing women in positions of political leadership, and hope that the increased number of female candidates indicated a change in the social acceptance of women as viable options for elected office.

The perceptions and opinions of the women who participated in this study about the American political system and women’s role within it are as varied and diverse as the women who comprise the female population at Muhlenberg.  As previously stated, findings cannot be generalized on a broad scale, but greater understanding of the perceptions that women at Muhlenberg College have concerning female candidates and their success or failure were gathered.

Many of my participants were already interested in the topics discussed in the focus group interviews as Political Science students and politically-engaged individuals.  Therefore, the lack of evidence of a prominent role model effect following the 2018 midterm elections may be a logical result.  These women have already been socialized to believe that women should run for and deserve to win political offices.  Many expressed the desire or temptation to run themselves, whether that be due to encouragement from friends or family, or due to a role model effect that they identified.  Role model effects were experienced by some in the past, such as when Hillary Clinton ran for president in 2008 or 2016, and also in the 2018 midterms.  Of those participants who did not believe that the 2018 Year of the Woman made them more likely to consider running for office, the majority of participants stated the belief in and satisfaction with the perception that it is now easier and more widely encouraged and accepted for women to run for political office.  Even though a role model effect may not have explicitly been experienced by these participants, their understanding of the political environment has been significantly shaped by the 2018 Year of the Woman.


Why the Role Model Effect Matters

Understanding the causes and consequences of the role model effect of female candidates on young women matters to those who wish to see a more inclusive and equitable distribution of political power in the United States. Electing more women and individuals of marginalized identity to political office increases the descriptive representation of the significantly diverse American electorate.  Although there are other influences that can increase a young woman’s decision to run for or consider running for political office such as party recruitment methods and special interests’ groups like EMILY’s List, the role model effect could be considered a more organic contributor to increased representation of subordinated populations.

My research compliments a recent study that has found the role model effect to be real, though occurring with nuances.  The impact is greatest on young women who are still in the process of learning and establishing their political perceptions and engagement habits.  Older women are less likely to be influenced by the role model effect, though it is not unheard of.  Young women have been found to discuss politics more when they experience the role model effect of first-time and competitive female candidates, suggesting that the novelty of female candidates is essential to the creation of a role model effect.  When a region experiences a new woman running for a major political office previously and traditionally held by a man, young women see an election featuring a viable female candidate where previously they had seen few or no women in positions of significant political power.  Such a drastic shift causes younger women to alter their perceptions of women’s place, and their own engagement, in politics (Wolbrecht and Campbell, 2017).

Neglecting to mention the significance of the frequency of which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy and success came up in focus group discussions would be a disservice to this research.  The unique nature of AOC’s candidacy, election, skyrocket to political fame, and subsequent media frenzy has certainly captured my participants’ as well as the nation’s attention.  Not only is AOC a young Congresswoman, she is a member of a marginalized minority community and had an untraditional path to political office.  The newness and novelty of her success may have had a disproportionately large role model effect on young women based on the number of times that participants in this study chose to mention her.  The role model effect created by AOC, or the AOC Effect, on the younger generations of women establishing their political habits and attitudes may be more profound than female candidates that have come before her such as Hillary Clinton.  Future research in this area could be dedicated to investigating the impact of media attention on and how political parties influence the creation of role model effects.



Appendix A: Email to Recruit Participants


I am conducting research this semester on the 2018 midterm elections, and I am looking for volunteers to participate in informal focus group interviews.  You do not have to be a political science major or someone who feels like they know a lot about politics to participate.  The only thing that is necessary for participation is that you identify as a woman and are 18 years or older.  Added bonus: you will receive a Starbucks gift card to thank you for your participation!

Sign up here:

Thank you so much!

Emma Lewis


Appendix B: Focus Group Informed Consent Form

Focus Group: Consent to Participate

Researcher: Emma Lewis

Faculty Advisor: Dr. Lanethea Mathews-Schultz

Muhlenberg College

Phone: 215-933-8737



Before agreeing to participate in this focus group, it is important that you read this document, which outlines the project’s purposes, procedures, benefits, risks, discomforts, and precautions.  Also described is your right to withdraw from the focus groups at any time.


Explanation of Procedures:

You are invited to participate in a focus group designed to facilitate discussion about the role-model effect that the 2018 midterm elections had on college-age women, particularly women of color and minority identity.  The focus group will be conducted by a student researcher writing a chapter in a student-authored (educational text).

A focus group is a small group of people (approximately 5 to 10 individuals) who meet together to explore questions asked by a researcher.  You will be asked to reflect on personal experiences and opinions regarding political ambition, reactions to the 2018 Year of the Woman, and the status of women in politics in the United States.

The focus group will be audio-taped and, later, transcribed for research purposes.  Lessons learned from focus groups may be included in a book chapter that I am writing.

Your focus group will be held on ______________________________________ in:

Seegers Union – Room 060

2400 W Chew Street, Allentown, PA 18104

Your focus group will last approximately 1 to 1 ½ hours.


Risks and Discomforts:

You will not be at physical or psychological risk from participating in this focus group.  Potential discomforts include a range of emotional feeling that you may have when talking about your personal experiences and opinions regarding politics in the United States, and the challenges you may perceive as a woman, person of color, person of minority identity, etc.



This focus group is expected to yield knowledge college-age women’s perceptions of the 2018 midterm elections.  An additional benefit of participation is the opportunity to discuss your concerns related to women’s involvement, or lack thereof, in politics in America.



Your identity as a participant in this focus group will not be disclosed to anyone other than the researcher, although it is possible that you may know other participants in the focus group.  Audio transcripts of focus groups will be stored in a secure location; only the researcher will have access to these transcripts.  Any references to your identity that would compromise your anonymity as a participant will be removed prior to the release of research findings.  The audio tape of the focus groups will be destroyed at the completion of the project at the end of the Spring 2019 semester.


Withdrawal Without Prejudice:

Participation in this study is voluntary.  Refusal to participate will not involve any penalty. You are free to withdraw your consent and discontinue participation at any time.


Costs & Payments:

There are no costs to participating in this focus group. As a token of appreciation for your time, you will receive a $5 Starbucks gift card for participating.


Payments for Research Related Injuries:

Although there are no risks of injury involved with this study, neither Muhlenberg College nor the researcher has made any provision for monetary compensation in the event of injury resulting from the focus group.



Any questions or concerns about the focus group should be directed to Emma Lewis, 215-933-8737,  Question regarding your rights as a participant in this focus group should be directed to Dr. Michele Deegan, Political Science Institutional Review Board Chair, Muhlenberg College, 484-664-3828,



This agreement states that you have received a copy of this informed consent.  Your signature below indicates that you are at least 18 years of age or older, are a student at Muhlenberg College, and agree to participate in this study.  Your signature also indicates that you are aware that you may stop participating at any time.

Name of Participant: ____________________________________________________________

Signature of Participant: _________________________________________________________

Date: _____________________________


If you would like a copy of the final draft of the book chapter, I would be happy to send you an electronic copy.

Please include your email address here: _____________________________________________


Withdrawal Without Prejudice:

Participation in this study is voluntary; refusal to participate will involve no penalty.  Each participant is free to withdraw consent and discontinue participation in this project at any time without prejudice from this institution.


Appendix C: Focus Group Script

Focus Group: Script

Researcher: Emma Lewis

Faculty Advisor: Dr. Lanethea Mathews-Schultz

Muhlenberg College

Phone: 215-933-8737



Thank you so much for taking the time to join in the discussion today.  You have been invited here today because I am interested in learning more about your thoughts regarding the 2018 midterm election and how it has impacted your personal opinions about politics and American elections.


Moderator Introduction

My name is Emma Lewis.  I am a senior at Muhlenberg College studying Political Science.  I am conducting this research for a course I am taking this semester called 2018: The Political Year of the Woman.  The information collected during our session today will be utilized for the book chapter that I am writing to be included in a collaborative work with my classmates that will be published at the end of the semester.

Before we get started, I’d like to review the informed consent waiver that your received.

Ask the participants to sign the consent form (if they have not already done so).

We will record our discussion today with a digital recorder for post-analysis.  After the audio is transcribed into text, the audio will be destroyed.  Your name will not be revealed or linked to the transcript in any way.  All recorded information will remain confidential and will be used only for the purpose of this research project.

Please remember that you have the right to withdraw from the session at any time.  We will likely be here for about 90 minutes.

At this time, I would like all participants to state their name and class year.

Participants Introduction (first name and class year)

Thank you.


A few final notes before we begin:

  1. Only one person should speak at a time so that everyone can share and be heard, and so the digital recorder can pick up all voices.
  2. You are not obligated to answer any question, but I hope to be able to listen to your perspectives and viewpoints.
  3. There are no wrong answers, just different opinions.Please respect each other.
  4. There is no specific order that participants must answer the questions in. This should be a conversation that is free-flowing and inclusive, with occasional guidance from the questions I have prepared.
  5. Are there any questions before we get started?



Have you ever considered running for office?

Have you ever been encouraged to run for office by friends, family, teachers, or mentors?

If so, who?  If so, how did that impact your thoughts about running for office?

What do you think or how do you feel when you see a woman in a leadership position?


What do you know about the 2018 midterm elections?

Did you follow political news during the 2018 midterm elections?

If so, where did you get your news from?

Did anything strike you as particularly significant in this election cycle compared to others?

Were there any candidates that ran or were elected in 2018 that particularly stuck out to you?

How would you characterize the women who run for or hold political office?

How would you characterize the political climate in the United States today?

Is it welcoming to women or those of marginalized or minority identity?


Based on the 2018 elections:

Are you more likely to follow political news and elections?

Are you more likely to support female candidates?

Are you more likely to run for elected office yourself?


Appendix D: Link to Google Form Sign-Up Sheet



Alvaré, Helen.  A ‘Year of the Woman’ won’t be enough’.”  CNN. Last modified 4 November 2018.

Campbell, David E. and Christina Wolbrecht. 2006.  “See Jane Run: Women Politicians as Role Models for Adolescents.” The Journal of Politics68, no. 2 (May): 233-247.

Cataldi, Silvia. 2018. “A proposal for the analysis of the relational dimension in the interview techniques: a pilot study on in-depth interviews and focus groups.”  Springer 52: 295-312.

Cramer, Katherine J.  2016. The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker.  Chicago: The Chicago University Press.

Dovi, Suzanne. 2018. “Political Representation.”  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Last modified 29 August 2018.

Dovi, Suzanne.  2002. “Preferable Descriptive Representatives: Will Just Any Woman, Black, or Latino Do?”  American Political Science Review96 (4): 729-743.

Gidengil, Elisabeth, Brenda O’Neill and Lisa Young.  2008. “Her Mother’s Daughter?  The Influence of Childhood Socialization on Women’s Political Engagement.” Canadian Political Science Association.  University of British Columbia, Vancouver, June 4-6.

Fox, Richard L. and Jennifer Lawless.  2005.  It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fox, Richard L., and Jennifer Lawless.  2010.  It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Fox, Richard L., and Jennifer L. Law.  August 2014.  “Uncovering the Origins of the Gender Gap in Political Ambition.”  American Political Science Review 108(3): 499-519.

Krueger, Richard A.  2002. “Designing and Conducting Focus Group Interviews.”  University of Minnesota.

Lawless, Jennifer.  2004. “Politics of Presence? Congresswomen and Symbolic Representation: Comparative Perspectives.”  Political Research Quarterly 57 (March): 81-99.

Mariani, Mack, Bryan W. Marshall and A. Lanethea Mathews-Schultz. 2015.  “See Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and Sarah Palin Run? Party, Ideology, and the Influence of Female Role Models on Young Women.”  Political Research Quarterly 68, no. 4: 716-731.

Pruysers, Scott and Julie Blais. 2018.  “A Little Encouragement Goes a (not so) Long Way: An Experiment to Increase Political Ambition.”  Journal of Women, Politics & Policy 39, no. 3 (June): 384-395.

Salam, Maya.  “2018: Year of the Woman, in 5 Powerful Quotes.”  The New York Times.  Last modified 28 December 2018.

Wolbrecht, Christina and David E. Campbell. 2007. “Leading by Example: Female Members of Parliament as Political Role Models.”  American Journal of Political Science51, no. 4 (October): 921-939.

Wolbrecht, Christina and David E. Campbell. 2017.  “Role models revisited: youth, novelty, and the impact of female candidates.” Politics, Groups, and Identities5, no. 3 (January): 418-434.


Share This Book