In January of 2008, Jennifer Lawless and Kathryn Pearson published an article in The Journal of Politics analyzing how female politicians fare in primary elections. Lawless and Pearson looked at every primary for the U.S. House of Representatives held between 1958 and 200—a staggering 19,221 primary contests involving 33,094 candidates. Just 2,648 women competed in those primaries, however—a mere 8 percent of the total. This would make sense, hypothesized Lawless and Pearson, given the assumed bias of the electorate. If women are less likely to win primaries, they will also be less likely to enter them.
But the facts didn’t fit the theory. “Contrary to our expectations,” concluded Lawless and Pearson, “women’s primary victory rates and vote margins are not significantly lower than those of their male counterparts.” In other words, women win just as frequently as men. Indeed, in Democratic primaries since 1990, a woman won in 60 percent of districts where at least one competed.
The problem, it turns out, is less underperformance than underrepresentation. When women run, they perform at least as well as men. But they don’t run nearly so often, and our country—with its weak party system and aversion to quotas—does nothing to specifically redress the resulting disparity.