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Profile: Rutgers Academic Encourages More Women To Run For Office

In era of Hillary Clinton, Susan J. Carroll says the glass is both half-empty and half-full for women in politics

susan j. carroll
Susan J. Carroll

Who she is: Susan J. Carroll is a professor of political science and gender studies at Rutgers University and a Senior Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a nonpartisan branch of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. Carroll is an accomplished author, researcher, commentator, and expert on women’s political participation.

Age: 65

Where she lives: Franklin Township, Somerset county.

How she got here: While pursuing her Ph.D. in political science at the University of Indiana in the late 1970’s, Carroll focused her dissertation on exploring the role of women in politics. This research became her first book, “Women as Candidates in American Politics,” which is widely considered one of the pioneering studies of female politicians.

“It was really that kind of work that got me started down this road,” Carroll says. “I was very interested in questions related to gender. This was actually one of the first works in the field of women in politics. There really was very little academic research out there at that point, and as we say at CAWP, ‘We had to help create the subject matter.’”

Carroll said she was drawn to New Jersey because of Rutgers’ strong political science program and finally made the move in 1981.

What she does: At Rutgers, Carroll helped develop the graduate program in women and politics within the political science department. She says this program is the first and only one of its kind in the nation and attracts high-caliber students looking to examine women’s roles in politics in the United States and globally.

“We have amazing graduate students. Part of their education to become academics also includes this connection to practice and real politics,” Carroll says. “They are committed to trying to connect the practical and the academic experiences and build bridges between those worlds. Working with these students is one of the things I’m proudest of.”

At CAWP, Carroll helps design and develop studies and analyze data about the inclusion of women in political office and the behavior of women voters. She says she’s interested in examining why our political representation, both statewide and nationally, doesn’t look more like the population. Carroll says it’s her job to bridge the gap between academics and experience.

“We’ve always made an effort to have our research findings disseminated to women outside of the academic environment.” Carroll says. “We’re trying to increase the number of women involved and understand the factors that affect women’s entries into office and the kind of treatment they get once they’re there.”

What she’s found: One of Carroll’s landmark studies along with her colleague Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers and a scholar at CAWP, revolved around the huge increase in numbers of women legislators in New Jersey between 2004 and 2011. During that time, 25 women, 16 Democrats and 9 Republicans, entered the New Jersey Legislature for the first time and five women already in the Assembly moved to the Senate. Carroll says that this jump was dramatic enough to warrant a study. The study found that one of the biggest contributors to this change was opportunity; corruption, scandals, deaths, and resignations opened 12 seats to be filled through appointment. Through in-depth interviews with 25 experts in the field, Carroll found that in the state, male politicians were generally viewed as “prone to corruption,” whereas women were seen as an ethical alternative.

“There is this sort of stereotype that women are more honest.” Carroll says. “So I think there was some idea that if you put a woman in this office that it will help to improve the image.”

Carroll says that these opportunities alone weren’t enough to account for the drastic change in representation. Organizations like CAWP put years of work into providing the encouragement and training necessary to prepare these women to competently and confidently take office.

“What was different this time -- what was equally important to the opportunity -- was that in this time period, women were actually positioned and ready to run for office. There was more of a statewide network among the women,” Carroll says.

Through CAWP, Carroll works with one of these programs called Ready to Run, which provides campaign training for women who are potentially interested in running for office themselves or helping other women to run. In New Jersey, Ready to Run has operated for over 18 years and has worked with more than 2,500 women.

NJ by the Numbers: In the state, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, a woman, is the first person in the newly created position, and Christine Todd Whitman, who served from 1994 to 2001, is the state’s only woman governor. Gov. Chris Christie currently has six women in his cabinet representing 26 percent of the total 23 members. There are 36 women in the state Legislature, holding 30 percent of the 120 total seats. This is broken down into 11 out of 40 seats (roughly 27 percent) in the Senate and 25 of the 80 members (31 percent) in the Assembly.

Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman, elected in 2014, was the first New Jersey woman sent to U.S. Congress since 2003. The state has never elected a female U.S. senator.

Barriers to entry: Carroll says there are several factors that impact women running for office. For example, women wait until their children are older because they perceive more responsibility for raising a family.

“It’s amazing how much things have changed and how much they’ve stayed the same,” Carroll says. “I mean, the glass is both half empty and half full. We have had increases in the number of women in office, but at the same time some of the same barriers persist.”

National focus: In this national election cycle, Carroll has been a sought-after voice for news organizations like the New York Times and Washington Post to comment on the state of gender politics today. Carroll says she’s not in the business of political advocacy but wants to provide objective, evidence-based commentary.

“That’s part of the way that as an academic I’m involved in engaging the world,” Carroll says. “I can bring my academic expertise and the information and the understanding I have to help talk about current political developments.”

Carroll says usually, reporters will ask her which candidate women are voting for. She says there’s clearly a gender difference. Regardless of political party, Carroll says in hypothetical match ups, women voters tend to overwhelmingly support Clinton and male voters support Trump or Sanders in primary surveys.

Carroll says she thinks it’s her responsibility and the responsibility of CAWP to get more women on ballots both locally and nationally.

“We want to see more women in politics. That’s our agenda. We want to help people understand why it’s important to have women involved. That’s really what we’re about.”

Carly Sitrin is an editorial intern at NJ Spotlight.

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