Here’s one way to increase women’s representation in politics: ordain more women as pastors and priests

By Cammie Jo Bolin and Benjamin Knoll

With record numbers of women candidates running and winning primaries across the country this spring, many are predicting that 2018 will be another “Year of the Woman.” According to data from Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, more than 500 women across the United States are currently running for Congress or governorships. This represents a stark increase from the 318 women who ran for Congress or governorships in 2016. While many state primaries have yet to occur, women candidates—and Democratic women in particular—have enjoyed strong early successes.

This increase in the number of women running for political office is a welcome sight for those seeking to narrow the gender gap in American politics. As of today, women comprise only 20 percent of Congress and just 12 percent of states governorships. The Inter-Parliamentary Union ranks the United States as 103rd globally for the percentage of women serving in its legislative bodies. According to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, if gains in women’s political representation in Congress continue at the same rate as from 1960 until now, women in the United States will not achieve equal representation until 2117.

Political science research has shown that a person’s confidence and political ambition are linked to a decision to run for office. This has consequences for gender representation because women are less likely than men to feel confident that they are qualified to serve in public positions. Moreover, women are also less likely than men to feel confident that they will win if they run, even though research has shown that women are just as likely to win once they make the decision to do so. Lower confidence and misperceptions about the likelihood of winning deter many women from seeking elected office.

Here’s one way to narrow the gender gap in politics:

Addressing the confidence gap between men and women is a key factor in reducing the gender gap in political leadership. In our new book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, we find that confidence for women, as expressed by self-esteem, is affected by the presence of women pastors and priests in a girl’s youth.

This finding is based on results from a nationally-representative telephone and internet survey conducted by students and researchers at Centre College throughout 2015 and 2016. The survey specifically sampled Americans who say that they attend religious services at least “seldom,” which according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey represent about 86% of Americans. Our survey sampled individuals from all major American religious traditions, both Christian and non-Christian, including those who identify as “None.” We asked our survey respondents a variety of questions about their religious identities and behaviors, as well as how often their congregational leaders growing up were women.

One of our key findings is that women who said that they never had women clergy in their youth reported lower levels of self-esteem as adults compared to women who had female leaders in their congregations at least “some of the time.” Specifically, women who only had male leaders were 10% less likely to agree that they have “high self-esteem” as adults and 30% less likely to “strongly agree.” We also found that when young women and girls had women pastors and priests in their congregations at least some of the time, their levels of self-esteem as adults are equal to those of men. (These results hold even after statistically controlling for a host of other potential factors such as age, socioeconomic status, parental education levels, race/ethnicity, political orientations, and the gender policies and practices of the individual’s current religious congregation.)

We theorize that this is because children are extremely perceptive to differences in societal gender roles. When young girls see prominent positions of leadership in their lives occupied only by men, they internalize that leadership is exclusively a “male” role, potentially leading them to have less confidence in themselves and their ability to be leaders.

This is important not only because there is a consistent “self-esteem gap” between women and men in the United States, but also because personal confidence is a key predictor of the choice to run for political office. Given that our research found that 60% of women said that their congregations growing up were only ever led by men, our findings suggests that part of the reason for the gender gap in politics today is because of the rarity of female congregational leaders in previous decades.

In our view, increasing the presence of women pastors and priests in America’s places of worship who serve as role models for young girls could also indirectly increase the number of adult women in the future who are confident in their ability to run for political office and serve as elected officials.

Although women are vastly underrepresented in both politics and religious leadership positions in America, our research suggests that these two spheres are closely linked. One way to help close the gender gap in our nation’s Capitol and statehouses may be found in our churches, synagogues, sanctuaries, mosques, and cathedrals.


Cammie Jo Bolin is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Dr. Benjamin Knoll is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Their book, She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, is now available from Oxford University Press.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia commons

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s