Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Opportunity Structure for Women's Candidacies and Electability in Britain and the United States

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

The Opportunity Structure for Women's Candidacies and Electability in Britain and the United States

Article excerpt

The influence of the social and political environment on candidacies and electability is an important element of political recruitment structures. We investigate several contextual factors that may affect the likelihood of women becoming candidates to, and members of, the British House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives. Using data from the 1992 British General Election and the 1992 U.S. congressional elections, we find both similarities and differences in the contexts promoting women's candidacies in the two countries. Overall, there is not an especially distinctive pattern in either country to women's candidacies or electability Women have moved beyond "sacrificial lamb" status, but incumbency remains the most fornidable electoral barrier in both countries.

Many political scientists have examined the question of why women's access to political office in Western democracies has lagged far behind their access to the vote. However, these studies have focused largely on the fate of women who are already candidates rather than on how women become candidates.

Researchers into political recruitment have traditionally divided the recruitment process into three stages: eligibility, candidate selection, and election (Rule 1981). Recently, several scholars have developed more elaborate models of the recruitment process (Lovenduski and Norris 1989). Considerable attention has focused on the concept of the opportunity structure, that is, how myriad potential candidates who meet legal and practical eligibility criteria are winnowed to the relative few who reach the formal selection process (Schlesinger 1966; Carroll 1994: 158; Burrell 1994).

Studies of women candidates in the United States and cross-nationally have shown that political opportunity structures such as type of electoral system, district magnitude, incumbency, party, and level of the political office are significant influences on women's access to legislatures, even in comparison to individual social and political factors, which are also important. However, all of these factors have more often been used to explain women winning office rather than their becoming party candidates (Fowler 1993).1

This paper develops a more comparative perspective on the opportunity structure for central-level legislatures by examining whether there are certain kinds of constituencies where local party selectors (in Britain) or primary electorates (in the United States) are more likely to nominate women, and by assessing how women candidates in the two countries fare for election under different social and political contexts. The two countries have single-member district electoral systems, with the effective choice of candidates lying in local hands (party organizations in Britain, electorates in the United States), in contrast to more centralized nominations in proportional representation systems (Lovenduski and Norris 1993). This study analyzes all major party candidates in elections to the British House of Commons in 1992 and to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. In both, there was a substantial increase in women's candidacies and election to the lower house.


Constituency socioeconomic and political culture characteristics, partisan factors, and the electoral context, particularly whether the seat is safe, competitive, or hopeless for a candidate's party may affect women's candidacies. Much previous research has concentrated on the opportunity structure for women at lower levels of government in the two countries because, until recently, there were few women candidates and legislators at the central level.

Constituency Characteristics

Constituencies where women candidates are not welcome will obviously diminish the number of potential women candidates entering the formal selection process. Two constituency characteristics seem especially worthy of exploration: the social class of voters in the constituency and the general cultural traditionalism of the area. …

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