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Keys to the Governor’s Office (1998)

Only 18. In the 225-year history of the United States only 18 women have served as governor. In 2001, only four women occupy the top job – in New Hampshire, Montana, Delaware and Arizona.

While the numbers of women in state legislatures continued to grow in the 1990s and the numbers of women serving in the U.S. House and Senate steadily improved, growing numbers have been elusive for women seeking governorships.

This guide is based on the most comprehensive research to date about women running for governor and is designed to help women run and win those races. By identifying the roadblocks women candidates face, it will be easier to maneuver around them. By offering candidates, campaign teams and supportive organizations insight into voters’ fears and stereotypes about women candidates for governor, campaigns will be better prepared to set aside those doubts.

For instance, our research revealed that women candidates face the highest hurdle in reaching constituencies such as seniors, blue-collar men and women who are homemakers. We also found that male voters prefer a man as governor, while women voters are ambivalent on their gender preference in candidates.

This guide discusses key challenges that keep women from competing on an equal footing with men in gubernatorial contests. It analyzes these factors and provides strategies to overcome them.

We believe our findings will benefit women running for local and legislative offices as well. By grappling with these issues early on, more women will run for governor and more will win.

*As we go to press, it is possible that an additional woman will succeed to the governor’s office. Of the 18 women who have served as governors, 12 were elected, three filled their late husbands’ terms and three succeeded sitting governors who left office early.

  1. Executive Leadership: Given the few examples of women chief executives in the public and private sectors, women candidates for governor must be able to demonstrate successful executive experience.
  2. Preparation: Women need to provide more evidence than men of financial and crisis management expertise to persuade voters they’re as “qualified” or “ready” to be governor.
  3. Outsiders With Insider Connections: Women are presumed to be “outside” the harsh push and pull of politics, but must have inside connections to mount statewide campaigns.
  4. Outsiders With Insider Know-How: Women are expected to be “honest,” but in voters’ minds, that raises the question: Can they make the necessary deals?
  5. Management Style – Collaborative or Decisive: Voters ask: Is a woman who builds consensus by being inclusive able to make the executive decisions required of a governor?
  6. Leadership Style – Tough, But Caring: Women benefit from demonstrating both the “toughness” to stand up to competing interest groups and the “caring” to champion a family issues agenda.
  7. Family Matters: Voters are both curious and make assumptions about a woman candidate and her family. They wonder about who comes first, the candidate’s family or the public.
  8. Voter Trends: Key groups of voters have distinct gender preferences for gubernatorial candidates. How do we make all groups available to women candidates?

Taken together, these challenges raise the question of “too.” Too virtuous to knock heads? Too much of an insider or too much of an outsider? Too much of a consensus builder and not decisive enough? Too tough or not tough enough? Too devoted to ambition or too devoted to family?

Women who have thought about these challenges have a better chance of developing public styles and policy agendas that win voter confidence. The earlier these issues are considered and are accounted for during the campaign, the less significant they will be in determing the outcome of a race for governor.

“The road to the governor’s office is challenging for any candidate. This guide provides invaluable insights into the opportunities and potential pitfalls faced by women candidates, and will help smooth the way for women who run for office in the future.”
– Governor Jeanne Shaheen