Her Name is Leslie Knope, and She is Breaking Barriers for Women in Politics
Updated: Feb 6
SPOILER WARNING: All seven seasons of Parks & Recreation
Full disclosure - I love Leslie Knope, and I am a huge fan of Parks & Recreation. I believe that my sincere appreciation for this show stems from two critical factors. First, the intentions of our characters are always good, even if they are sometimes misconstrued. Second, the characters are always willing to try, even if they don't always succeed. I could talk all day about all the elements of Parks & Rec that I find enjoyable and refreshing, but today I want to focus on women in politics, using our role model of the ineffable Leslie Knope.
It's not news that there are barriers to women in politics. Across the board, women are underrepresented in elected positions. As of Canada's 2019 Federal Election, only 29% of the House of Commons is controlled by women. As of the time of writing, Taiwan holds the record as the "place to be" for women in politics, with 38% of its parliament being women, the most of any Asian nation. 34% of the UK parliament are women. All of these statistics are record-setting numbers for gender-parity in politics. All of these statistics are dismally shy of an equitable 50%.
When we talk about why women are missing from political centres, the conversation is often limited to mention of discrimination on the part of voters, caucuses, and governments. While these are certainly factors that influence women's prevalence in positions of leadership, they are not the only nor the primary considerations. Understanding the full range of systems, beliefs, and factors that bar women from participation will help us best create meaningful remedies to eliminate these barriers. So let's deep dive into how Parks and Rec demonstrates various factors preventing women from participating in politics and what solutions the show indicates that have given us a full cast of powerful women.
For the first part of this conversation, we will be focusing on the findings of the study Identity Matters released by the University of Alberta in 2017. Fair disclosure, I am biased to want to defer to the results of this study as I personally know and respect a number of the researchers involved. I was also able to participate in the implementation of some of the proposals for remedies mentioned in the study. Thus, I have seen firsthand numerous anecdotal affirmations of the results of this study, leading me to feel confident in the validity of these findings.
You can read the report on the study for yourself here! In short, the study viewed small-level political positions as a gateway to higher-level positions. This study, in particular, made a connection that individuals holding positions in student government were more likely to both be involved in and have success in municipal, provincial, and federal elections. Considering that, at the University of Alberta, where the study was conducted, only 3 women had been elected to a presidential position in the past 12 years and on average held only 35% of other elected positions, despite forming 56% of the student body, women were concluded to be severely underrepresented. Critically, it was determined that this underrepresentation was not due to either a lack of interest or a lack of qualification. The study found that more than any other identity factor, including race, gender has a significant impact on the confidence of an interested student in seeking elected office. Gender also had the most impact on all elements of a candidate's campaign.
In this discussion, we focus on the choice of a candidate to run more than the societal perceptions that may bias a voter against electing a woman to office because ballot equality is the foundational step to gender-balanced cabinets. If there are only men or 6 men and one woman on the ballot, the results are skewed from the outset against a gender-balanced government. So let's look at some specific barriers that Leslie Knope, and women in general, are faced with.
1. Lack of Knowledge of Opportunities
There is an adage that "It's not what you know; it's who you know." This is certainly true in politics. Networking accounts for the majority of securing nominations and campaign funds, as well as simply being aware of what seats are available and who the competition is. As many of these conversations occur in male-dominated arenas, women are easily left behind, given less opportunity to make vital connections or become aware of opportunities.
We see Leslie Knope directly acknowledge this disadvantage twice, once in Season 1, Episode 4, "Boys Club" and once in Season 2, Episode 10, "Hunting Trip." In both episodes, Leslie feels that she is being left behind by her male coworkers and is missing opportunities because of it. Moreover, both times the burden is on Leslie to fight to be included and accepted in a male-centric setting and activity. This unintentional form of discrimination creates spaces that are not welcoming to women and that bar them from accessing political resources and consequently create barriers to being able to establish and secure a nomination.
2. Lack of Knowledge of the Skills to Run a Campaign
While many women are qualified to hold political office, the skills required to manage a campaign are not the same skills needed to serve in the public sector. Women tend to be less familiar with the process of securing the nomination, campaigning, and political marketing than men, who may develop these skills in tangential or entry leadership positions. When parties require potential candidates to complete their own nomination packages or act as their own campaign managers, those without this additional skillset may be barred from the chance to run. Most frequently, it is women who experience this barrier.
We do see Leslie Knope struggle with her lack of campaigning know-how throughout Season 4. After being dropped by the recruiters following her scandal of being born in Eagleton, her campaign waffles (pun intended) until she eventually brings Ben in as her campaign manager and trusts in his judgement regarding marketing. Where Leslie is more than qualified to debate issues, establish positions, and govern, she does not have the knowledge set to run a campaign too.
3. Overestimation of the Qualifications Required for an Elected Position
In qualitative research, a repeated pattern emerges showing that, in general, women tend to overestimate the level of qualification, skill, or preparedness required to run a campaign or hold office. When surveyed, nearly all women candidates tended to reference some form of anxiety or self-doubt in relation to their campaign, a behaviour not readily observed in male candidates. Women are more likely to assume that they are not qualified for positions that, in reality, they are often overqualified. They may also feel the need to spend longer preparing, delaying a campaign until they feel they have conducted sufficient research. Once elected, women tend to feel they need to over-prepare for meetings or press conferences to gain the same level of respect and consideration as their male co-workers.
We absolutely see Leslie Knope demonstrate all of these behaviours throughout the series. It is a running joke that she always has binders brimming with meticulous research. She checks and triple checks all of her data. We often see her display behaviours associated with anxiety when she feels unprepared, including panic, an impending sense of doom, increased heart rate, sweating, hyperventilating, trouble sleeping, and fixation.
The prevalence of these attitudes can bar women from seeking to become political candidates because they are held back by their own self-doubt and anxiety.
4. Awareness of Identity
Where men have the ability to be ignorant of the ways their gender identity can manifest in power, privilege, and entitlement, women tend to be hyper-aware of their gender identity as a factor of and burden to their political campaigns.
As a factor of their campaigns, women are more likely to understand their election as a success for not only themselves, but also for those who share their feminine gender identity. Women are very aware of those who have preceded them and how their achievements will impact the opportunities available to the women who follow. We see Leslie acknowledge this fact several times through the show's run, noting both the female role models whose footsteps she aspires to follow and that her achievements are a "win for all womankind." Her losses then, in her mind, constitute a failure on her part to advance feminism.
As a burden, women's awareness of their gender identity can lead them to second guess the ways they present themselves, ensuring they have the right clothes, makeup, tone, posture, voice, and look to be feminine but not too girly, powerful but not too bossy, pretty and put together but not too promiscuous or vain. Behind the scenes of Parks and Rec, the choice to put Leslie in pantsuits in every episode reflects this awareness, presenting her as business-forward and straight-cut.
This additional pressure to represent not just to represent yourself or your party but your entire gender can be overbearing and can discourage women from pursuing politics in a way that men never need to consider.
5. Sexism in Interactions with Voters and Volunteers
Women are overwhelmingly more likely to receive comments from voters that question their qualifications and ability to do the job based on their identity, especially in online, one-on-one, or "door-knocking" interactions with male voters.
These experiences are perfectly represented in Season 7, Episode 9, "Pie-Mary." Made even more egregious by the fact that the comments are directed to Leslie in the midst of Ben's campaign, the events of the Pie-Mary reveal sexist attitudes that underscore the population's expectations of what a candidate, or candidate's wife, should or should not be. Leslie is questioned on her clothing, her childcare arrangements, her decision whether or not to enter a pie-baking contest, her intelligence, and whether she is trying to "have it all."
Men are generally not asked to prove their qualifications and defend their lives and family choices the way women are. This rigorous judgement not only discourages women from running due to exhaustion from sexist interactions, but it may prompt Party Leaders and Gatekeepers, those responsible for deciding whose name will represent the party on the ballot, to avoid selecting female candidates to avoid the scrutiny.
Most commonly, the emphasis of parties is on ensuring their party wins as many seats in the house as possible, leading them to naturally look for people they perceive to embody the stereotype of the "best candidate." These guidelines often favour men over women as candidates, placing national party leaders as the major barrier to women in politics. The perspective of parties often deviates greatly from established voter patterns, perceiving women and other minority groups as being less electable than they are in reality, in part due to sexism and misogyny in the media, in parties, and in select sects of voters. By establishing nomination criteria and patterns that tend to bias against women, parties themselves form a barrier to women in politics, fueled by these sexist and misogynistic biases.
6. Socio-Economic Class
When seeking nomination to be listed as a candidate on the ballot, one's socio-economic class can manifest as a disadvantage in a few critical ways. First, some country's or political party's nomination systems require that potential candidates fund their own nomination efforts. This effectively bars those with lower income levels from being able to put their name in the ring. Even when candidates do not have to fund their own campaigns, as Ron Swanson tells Leslie:
"Campaigning is a full-time job. Right now, you’re working fifty hours a week here and fifty hours a week on the campaign...You’re a month behind on everything. You forgot to file the weekly parks maintenance report. You do it every week, and you forgot. Things are falling through the cracks. I’m pretty sure you’ve worn that sweater for days in a row.”
Leslie Knope has the privilege to have the financial ability to take time off work to run her campaign without missing any bills. She also has the privilege of job security, meaning that the time she takes off won't impact her ability to return to her previous position if her bid is unsuccessful. Many people interested in politics may not have the luxury of spending months or years out of full-time work while they campaign or the risk that a job might not be waiting for them when they finish. While socio-economic class is a factor that can impact any potential candidate, it must be noted that the majority of the world's low-income individuals are women, a concept sometimes referred to as the "feminization of poverty." As such, if we consider women to be more vulnerable to low-income concerns than men, and acknowledge that women are less likely to hold tenured or secure employment, this factor may be identified more frequently as a barrier to interested women than to interested men.
7. Lack of Support from Male Peers
Anecdotally, women elected into office often comment that they felt their male peers would act with entitlement, speak over them, or minimize their contributions, often without malicious intent. Elected men in minority groups also noticed these patterns from their cis-white male coworkers but expressed greater confidence in calling out their peers' behaviour than their female counterparts.
We see Leslie Knope have many positive and supportive relationships with her male coworkers, including Ron, Chris, Ben, Andy, and Tom. When these men act in support of Leslie, they are able to shut down instances of entitlement, privilege, and sexism more swiftly and amicably than Leslie would have been able to do alone.
But, in the City Council chambers, we also see Leslie struggle, often without backup from her all-male fellow council members. In the setting of the city council, Leslie needs to swallow sexist and misogynistic remarks as well as being frequently shut down and spoken over, without anyone in her corner. This makes it more difficult, bordering on impossible, for her to do her job effectively and efficiently. When other men reflect on their own entitlement and privilege and use it to help educate and referee their male co-workers, they make political spaces more accessible for women. Failure to do so can make spaces hostile and form a barrier to women in politics.
8. Glass Ceilings, Cliffs, and Unwinnable Seats
The Glass Ceiling refers to a phenomenon by which members of minority groups find themselves unable to rise beyond a certain level of a given hierarchy. These differences of achievement between members of minority and majority groups cannot be explained by any job-relevant characteristics, with increasing disparity at higher positions. The barriers encapsulated by this metaphor restrict not just the overall proportions of minorities in these positions but the actual chances of an individual with a given identity rising beyond a certain level of power. For Leslie, we can see the glass ceiling in effect in that her dream as a child is to be a city councillor. Not a Governor. Not a President. When she does imagine achieving these positions, she imagines her success not only in gaining power but in being the first. It has been documented that, as a species, it is physically easier for humans to accomplish tasks they know to be possible. For Leslie, her becoming President is, in some regards, an impossible feat because no woman has ever done it before her, making the goal that much more difficult.
The Glass Cliff refers to a phenomenon of companies and institutions granting women positions of power during times of crisis and turmoil. When external circumstances make success at a certain point in history impossible, the leader is noted as having failed, diminishing their reputation and ability to run for re-election. Women have disproportionately been elected to untenable positions compared to the number of women elected overall, damaging their ability to run for re-election. We see Leslie Knope navigate a Glass Cliff situation with the merger between Pawnee and Eagleton. The merger needed to happen when she was city councillor. It was more or less inevitable. But it was also a major factor that leads to Leslie's recall.
Finally, we need to acknowledge how the existence of "unwinnable seats" creates a barrier to women in politics, even if this was not a challenge Leslie herself managed. Unwinnable ridings are areas where a given party has never won a seat or where the incumbent is entrenched. In an effort to appear diverse, many parties may nominate a woman for office and then place her in an unwinnable district, guaranteeing that she will not be elected to office.
All of these factors place direct barriers against the chance of a woman winning a political seat.
So how can we, as a society, work to remove these barriers and get women first on the ballot and then elected into office?
1. Proportional Representation and Multimember Systems Are More Advantageous to Women Than First-Past-the-Post, Single-Member Systems
The type of electoral system a woman runs in plays a role in her chances of winning a seat. Single-member first-past-the-post systems elect a single winner from each riding based on them winning a majority of the votes. Multi-member proportional representation systems accept several winners from a single riding, allotted to parties based on the proportion of the vote they receive. For example, in a riding with 10 seats up for grabs, if a given party wins 40% of the vote, they will have won 4 of the seats for the riding.
In single-winner, first past the post systems, incumbents are favoured to win elections, meaning that women tend to be excluded from contention because incumbents tend to be male. Women are further disadvantaged in single-winner, first-past-the-post systems as parties can only nominate one candidate to each riding, encouraging them to be selective and pick candidates whose identities, more than qualifications, they feel have the best chance of winning. This means that a party may not choose as diverse a roster of candidates in single-winner systems as they would in multi-member systems because they are hedging their bets.
We can see that, in Season 4, Leslie does not run for office until the previous incumbent retires. Her seat is then filled by another woman after the recall vote. This dynamic acknowledges the value of incumbency and the reality that, in Pawnee, the incumbents are male and need to step down before women can be given a fair shake.
2. Gender Quotas
There are three different types of Gender Quotas that democratic countries, provinces, or municipalities might employ to ensure gender parity. First is the idea of reserved seats, which earmark a number of seats in parliament to be specifically held by women. Second, are party quotas, which work at the party level to ensure women are proportionally in the running to be considered as party candidates. Third are legislative quotas, which work at a national level to ensure all parties nominate equal numbers of men and women as candidates.
I personally advocate for the latter option. It is my opinion that the first step in addressing gender parity must be to ensure both that each party nominates an equal number of male and female candidates across their constituencies and that each constituency is equally represented by men and women on the ballot. Such measures are done with hopes that parity at the foundational level on the ballot will translate into parity in elected office. When women are not equally represented on the ballot, they do not have the opportunity to form an equal proportion of the house.
In countries with decentralized political parties, these Party Leaders are responsible for choosing who gets to be on the ballot, meaning parliaments and voters trust an assumption that parties will back equitable numbers of male and female candidates. As we saw in Season 5, Episode 11, "Women in Garbage," this assumption leaves us with a big risk that few or no parties will actively support female candidates. Until all of the aforementioned barriers to women's participation are alleviated, Candidate Quotas are one of the best ways to achieve democratically elected gender-parity.
3. Candidate Scouting
When men are asked about their choices to embark on an election campaign, they are more likely to cite the decision as an entirely personal choice. Contrastly, women have overwhelmingly indicated that they are more likely to run when they receive encouragement and validation from peers in the years leading up to a firm decision to run. One of the methods political parties often use to find candidates is through the use of scouts, people who track up-and-coming individuals and approach them about running for office as a representative for a specific party.
This is precisely how we see Leslie Knope get on the ballot in every campaign she runs on the show. While we know that she has wanted to be in an elected office since she was a child, she never actually puts her name in to run for city council until Season 3, Episode 16, when she is actively approached by scouts who identify potential candidates for political office and help run their campaigns. Later, when she runs for governor of Indiana in the series finale, she does so once again because she is approached by a scout and asked to run.
Candidate Scouts help women bypass many of the barriers associated with getting their name on the ballot. They supply confidence, assurance, and motivation in running. They can assist with the nomination process, either training women in the skills needed to campaign or running campaigns themselves. In some cases, they can also provide the funding, networking, and consultancy needed to become a candidate for election. When parties use scouts to identify candidates, and those scouts reach out equally to men and women for consideration, it gets more women on the ballot and, by extension, more women in office.
4. Candidate Selection Process
Another way to get more women on the ballot is to have women in the executive positions that control nominations. When women are in the positions of Party Leaders and gatekeepers, they tend to be more likely to support the candidacies of other women and tend to create more equitable ballots. However, currently, these positions are often filled by men who more frequently foster biases against women’s participation in the nomination process, thus giving women a disadvantage.
We see this dynamic play out in Season 5, Episode 11, "Women in Garbage," when Leslie tries to implement a Gender Equality Commission. Throughout the show's run, she, a woman, demonstrates a vested interest in helping get women excited about government, from forming the Pawnee Goddesses to mentoring her female intern, April. But when we see the hiring managers for the various departments and see that they are all men, we discover there is not only a lack of interest in ensuring women are hired but direct discrimination against doing so due to gender-based biases.
To achieve gender equity in high-level decisions, there must be not just a willingness but a dedicated effort to seek out, train, and hire qualified women. Achieving this requires that women are part of the selection team.
5. Hereditary Factors
Within this analysis, we must acknowledge the roles identity, intersectionality, and privilege play in providing access or barriers to opportunities (for a breakdown of these terms, you can read my article here!) Leslie Knope is firstly privileged in being white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, and of an upper-socioeconomic class. All of these factors play a role in making it easier for her to achieve success. Her mother also holds a powerful position in the Pawnee Government, giving her both nepotistic ties to office and the advantage of a greater understanding of the role, being raised around the government. All of these factors impact her ability to defy barriers to women in politics more easily than others from less privileged backgrounds.
We know Leslie Knope is capable, works hard, and cares about her job and her community more than anyone. But Parks and Recreation has also shown us something realistic - she excels in positions that she is selected for rather than elected into. Within democratic nations, the cards tend to be stacked against women holding power. But they don't have to be. There are systems that can and have proven to help women claim and maintain elected positions. The problems stem neither from lack of interest or lack of capability but from a myriad of systemic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and resource-based barriers. Together, we are capable of removing these barriers.
If you want to read more on this topic, please check out:
Hinojosa, M. (2012). Selecting women, electing women: Political representation and candidate selection in latin america. Temple University Press.
Huang, C-L. (2015). Gender quotas in taiwan: The impact of global diffusion. Politics & Gender, 11 (1).
Krook, M. L. (2006). Reforming representation: The diffusion of candidate gender quotas worldwide. Politics & Gender, 2 (2006), 303–327.
Tremblay, M. & Pelletier, R. (2001). More women constituency party presidents: A strategy for increasing the number of women candidates in canada?. Party Politics, VOL 7. No.2 pp.157-190.