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The Year of the Woman? Not in NC politics

North Carolina hasn’t experienced the same surge of women candidates as the rest of the country.
North Carolina hasn’t experienced the same surge of women candidates as the rest of the country. N&O file photo

This year has been referred to as the “Year of the Woman” in politics, and there is ample evidence to support this label. Data from Rutger’s Center for Women and American Politics indicates 235 women have captured the Democratic or Republican nomination for the House, surpassing the previous high of 167. In state legislative races across the country, there are over 3,300 women running in the general elections, beating the previous high of just over 2,600 set in 2016.

North Carolina, however, is not experiencing a surge in women candidates to the same degree as many states. The total number of women running for all offices in the state has declined from 2014 and 2016.

There are some bright spots for women candidates in North Carolina. There was a 26 percent increase in the number of women running for the state legislature, but this figure is tempered by the fact that there was a 27 percent overall increase in the number of candidates running. This means the relative number of women running did not increase.

In terms of other offices, the number of women running for Congress is the same as it has been in the last two election cycles, but fewer women are running for county-level offices in the state or for the judiciary.

Looking at the data in more detail reveals some interesting findings about women candidates in the state. There is a significant rural-urban divide in North Carolina, with urban areas having approximately 50 percent more women candidates than rural areas of the state. There are 38 rural counties that have no women running for county commissioner — and that have no women currently serving — meaning women will not have a voice in determining property tax rates or school spending levels in those counties. One county —Beaufort County — has no women on the ballot for any county-level offices, including Register of Deeds, a position held by a majority of women across the state.

For those of us who study gender and politics, the results are hardly surprising. The fundamentals of North Carolina politics for women have changed little in recent years. Campaigns for many offices — not just high profile offices like governor or Congress — have become more time consuming, expensive, and negative. Political scientists argue that women suffer more from “election aversion” than do men and thus never file for office.

North Carolina, especially in many rural areas, has a very traditional political culture, which is male-dominated, that makes it more difficult for women to run for and serve in office. In many communities across the state, not only are there no women currently serving in any offices, but there never have been. Women in those communities who aspire to serve in an appointed or elected office have no role models or mentors in their communities.

Women make up almost 54 percent of registered voters in North Carolina, but hold less than 24 percent of all elected offices. We may end the 2018 election cycle with more women in Congress or even the General Assembly, but, in reality, there is still a long way to go before gender parity is achieved.

McClennan is professor of political science at Meredith College in Raleigh and the author of the 2018 Status of Women in North Carolina Politics.