Lonna Rae Atkeson of the University of New Mexico, in "Not All Cues Are Created Equal: The Conditional Impact of Female Candidates on Political Engagement", examines the problem of the gap between the political involvement of men and women in the United States that has persisted even as women's roles have changed to allow them more access to political resources. Women have matched and often outclassed men both in voting and in types of political involvement pursued by a minority of men and women - working in political campaigns, attending rallies and protests, and the like - but when it comes to (non-voting) general and accessible forms of involvement, like political discussion with friends and family or holding opinions on political issues, women are far less likely to participate than men, which may contribute to current underrepresentation. Atkeson argues that one contextual factor may have a powerful effect on political participation by women: the presence of female candidates running against men in competitive elections.
Atkeson's hypothesis builds on work suggesting that psychological and social cues heavily influence political activity. Visible and vocal politicians and candidates who are "like" underrepresented parts of the population encourage those groups to increase their presence by breaking down the psychological and systemic barriers presented by a mainly straight, white, and male government. Atkeson argues that it is not enough for female candidates to be merely present to positively affect political participation by women - they must also be part of competitive, intergender races for offices above the local level. Of the 15.5% of Congressional races since 1974 that included women, Atkeson describes 51% as "generally low-key, noncompetitive contests." (1043) Atkeson cites evidence suggesting that where there were competitive female candidates in intergender contests, changes in campaign style were more than symbolic and extended to opposing male candidates, who began to emphasize traditional women's issues. Especially pertinent to her is the presidential election of 1984, where Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman placed on a major-party presidential ticket in a contest which could not help but address women's issues, and women's political participation increased in correlation. Surprisingly, Atkeson claims that in testing her hypothesis she found such competitive contests to be much more important than female office-holders in raising political participation by women, and suggests that "office holding may promote a more muted policy discussion than a campaign". (1045)
The published article shares the findings of Atkeson's statistical investigation of this hypothesis. She investigated Senate and gubernatorial races in fifty states, excluding House of Representatives races because of their generally noncompetitive nature, defining an 'intergender' race as one where a man competes against a woman and a 'competitive' contest as one resulting in a margin of victory of 10% or lower. (1046) The variables included a number of signifiers of basic political participation, including frequency of political discussions with family and friends and the number of 'don't know' answers given in response to political questions. The study concluded that in competitive intergender contests, these variables do show a marked tendency towards greater political involvement among women in multiple arenas, while among men, the only effect of such contests is to decrease the amount of 'don't know' answers.
According to Atkeson, the most important significant finding is "the importance of system cues in facilitating political engagement." (1052) Descriptive cues help to facilitate political activity in ways that resources and access alone do not. Women have been able to actively participate at all levels of politics over the last 80 years, but without cues like competitive female candidates at the fore, this potential does not become a more equal reality. Atkeson suggests that this may hold true for "less-visible" political groups such as "Latinos, Blacks, gays, even the young." (1053) Candidates who are "like" underrepresented groups may be the best hope to increase active political engagement.
It seems obvious that female candidates, if part of competitive races, would have positive psychological and social effects on the political participation of women; Atkeson's article, however, provides statistical evidence from actual election cycles. It may be, as Atkeson implies, that many parts of a disproportionately white, male, and straight political establishment have an unrecognized vested interest in promoting candidates who do not fit the status quo and are "like" underrepresented parts of the population. If groups who are less politically engaged in low-level activity become more so, then higher-level activity like voting, activism, and campaigning may also increase, allowing parties and political organizations access to a previously-untapped source of support in underrepresented groups.
Lonna Rae Atkeson, "Not All Cues Are Created Equal: The Conditional Impact of Female Candidates on Political Engagement", Journal of Politics, Volume 65, No. 4 (November 2003) pp 1040-1061