The Myth of Electability: What It Really Takes for Women to Win

(Two-Minute Read)

Policy in Brief:

Emily Cain, who served 10 years in the Maine Legislature and is currently the executive director of EMILY’s List (Early Money Is Like Yeast), argues that the debate about electability in the 2020 presidential election—and beyond—wrongly assumes that women or people of color are just less electable than certain men.

Fascinating Features:

For much of the past year, instead of debating the policies or the experience of the candidates in the historically diverse Democratic presidential primary, we’ve been debating an increasingly flawed metric: electability.

The reality is, however, that electability is determined on Election Day by voters, and past results are not always the best indicators of future elections. For example Barack Obama and Donald Trump were assumed to be unelectable up until they got elected.

Representation Matters:

Women have had the right to vote since 1920, and a century later, after an election in which women made unprecedented gains, the US House of Representatives is still dominated by men, who make up more than three-quarters of its members.

Of the nearly 2,000 people who have served in the US Senate, only 56 have been women. Further, only 325 of the 11,037 members of the House have been women. In the Judicial Branch the first female Supreme Court Justice was Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981 and at present only 1/3rd of the Court is comprised of women.

Effecting Change:

The influx of women have not only changed policies, they have also changed Congress itself.

  • Until Barbara Mikulski led the Pantsuit Rebellion of 1993, women could not wear pants on the floor of the US Senate.
  • As recently as 2009, women senators could not use the pool in the congressional gym because some of their male colleagues preferred to swim in the nude.
    • Thanks to former Senator Kay Hagen, the “men only” sign was changed to a “proper attire required” sign.
  • In 2018, Senator Tammy Duckworth became the first senator to give birth while in office. Senators, of course, are required to vote in person, however, Senate rules banned babies from the Senate floor. Duckworth asked Senator Amy Klobuchar, a senior official on the Senate Rules Committee, to amend the rules so she would not have to choose between caring for her child and executing her job as a legislator.

Unfair Assumptions:

As candidates, women face questions and assumptions that men do not.

  • How will you balance work and family?
  • How are you going to take care of your child if you win?
  • When do you plan on having children?
  • Why don’t you have children?

Women are also judged based on their appearance and tone of voice much more harshly than men are.

In the 2020 presidential primary, the women candidates face questions of electability, likability, and authenticity, who Cain argues are all code words for “this is a type of candidate that I have not encountered before.”

Can Women Win?

According to Cain, electability is an unfair and unhelpful metric. She states that it is “‘simply code for candidates that look like what we’re used to,’ And it ensures that women and people of color face an unfair disadvantage that has nothing to do with their actual campaigns or candidacies.”

But what is electability? Is it the biggest name recognition? Is it who is leading the polls? Is it someone who looks and acts like a former leader? Despite its many and amorphous meanings, electability is an unuseful way to look at electoral politics. In fact, it more often than not predicts outcomes wrong. In prior presidential elections, Gary Hart was considered more electable than George Bush, Walter Mondale more than Ronald Reagan, and Bob Dole more than Bill Clinton.

The truth is, women are very electable. America did vote for Hillary Clinton for president by popular vote, however, Donald Trump won based on voting in three key states giving him the lead in the Electoral College. In fact, Clinton received almost 3 million more votes than Trump.


Campaigns for political office should be about ideas and candidates and letting voters decide for themselves. It is not helpful when pundits focus on who can and cannot win. No matter who you support, we should all want a level playing field to unsure that we get our best candidate, not the one supported by the pundits or past conventional wisdom.

In fact, the new normalcy brought on by women in electoral politics is just the beginning. It has started the process of questioning business as usual everywhere to make sure that not only women, but members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, people of different religions, people who come from less-affluent backgrounds, and people with disabilities all have access to a seat at the table.

Dig Deeper:

Cain, Emily. “The Myth of Electability: What It Really Takes for Women to Win.” Maine Policy Review 28.2 (2019) : 6-8.

From MPR’s Archive:

Cathcart, Mary. ““These Very Impelling Reasons Against My Running”: Maine Women and Politics.” Maine Policy Review 17.1 (2008) : 8-9.

Chitam, Mufalo, Parivash Rohani, Laura de Does, Ghomri Rostampour, Oyinloluwa Fasehun, Bethany Smart, and Jan Morrill. “Our Path: Empower Maine Women Network and Leadership.” Maine Policy Review 27.1 (2018) : 68-71.

Powell, Richard J. “Cleaning House? Assessing the Impact of Maine’s Clean Elections Act on Electoral Competitiveness.” Maine Policy Review 19.2 (2010) : 46-54.

Related Resources:

Center for American Women and Politics

Maine N.E.W. Leadership