Are authenticity and vulnerability a new paradigm for women in politics?

August 12, 2021

New research

By Stephanie Madden, Penn State University and Abbey Levenshus, Butler University

Running for political office at any level is a grueling, time-consuming, and expensive undertaking for any candidate. For women with political ambitions, the very desire to run for elected office can call into question their “authenticity” given the status quo of who has traditionally held public office. Despite challenges associated with gender bias, women are increasingly running for, and winning, elections. 

Given the leadership gap, women’s candidate recruitment and training programs have stepped in to help women see themselves as potential elected officials and coach them through the process of running and winning campaigns. A 2018 census found nearly 600 such programs in the United States alone.

Through our Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant, we were able to conduct a rare, behind-the-scenes ethnographic case study of the Emerge candidate training program aimed at supporting and increasing the number of Democratic women who run for public office. The study included 52 hours of participant observation while embedded in a six-month, cohort-based training program; 15 follow-up in-depth interviews with training cohort members; and document analysis. The rich data allowed us to explore many angles, including how prospective women political leaders are trained to develop and communicate their narrative identity. This post offers three key takeaways related to authenticity – a concept that repeatedly surfaced in the data.

Authentic ambitions

As noted earlier, there continues to be an internalized stigma that people running for office are doing so for their own self-interests and desire for power. The women in this study felt they needed a tangible reason or explanation for their political ambitions. The women who shared with the cohort about a personal crisis event – a past incarceration, sexual assault or other trauma – that had inspired their desire to run for office were named by other participants as examples of women who had the best reasons for running. It was almost as if a past trauma gave women a permission slip to step into the political arena, and women who had led relatively easy and privileged lives felt like they didn’t have a good enough reason to run. These trainings may need to help women process these internalized stigmas that continue to categorize ambitions as antithetical to authenticity.

Be authentically you

Despite known gender biases in politics, women were not being trained to change themselves in any way for public office. Instead, women were encouraged to present their authentic selves as part of their narratives as a rational strategy for influence rooted in an emotional connection to others. On the first day of training, a session leader reinforced that female candidates are often made to try to fit into a box of what it means to be a politician, which could conflict with their actual identity. Many women discussed feeling surprised and empowered by hearing that they did not have to do “what a consultant tells you” and they could approach aspects of the campaign in their own style.

The authenticity continuum

For women political candidates, being authentic in their communication about their identities meant being transparent, open, honest and true to themselves. The observations and interviews revealed that authentic communication about narrative identity is not an all-or-nothing concept.

It requires decisions about what parts of oneself to share in the public eye. As such, authenticity was linked with vulnerability to create opportunities for connection. However, authenticity as vulnerability comes with risks and exists on a continuum – particularly when a candidate’s vulnerability extended to other loved ones’ stories as well.

One participant, who was elected to city council in a major city on a third-party ticket, talked openly in her campaign about being a single mother, being on public assistance, and having a gender non-conforming child. By being open about herself, she said: “My story resonated with so many people in different ways. And the fact that I was openly willing to tell it, I think it was like a breath of fresh air for people.” And yet she worried about what it might mean to bring her child’s story into the narrative.

Into the future

By embedding over time and watching the process of a women’s political campaign training unfold, this study helped us identify:

  • Ways that authenticity imposed internal expectations
  • How authenticity drove their communication of narrative identity
  • How that authenticity was navigated in execution along a continuum.

Rather than making women with political ambitions “act like men” and communicate like male candidates, the findings from this study show that authenticity and vulnerability—key aspects of relationship building—offer a new paradigm for politics and political public relations.

For further information on this research, please email Drs. Madden at and Levenshus at This project is supported by the 2019 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant on narratives.