Ashley Masoner didn't grow up in a political family.
The Purdue University Fort Wayne student can't remember her four siblings or her parents ever talking about the issues of the day.
“Growing up, I can't remember anyone saying, 'I'm going to vote' or 'There's an election coming up, and here's who's running,'” she said.
The familial trend ended with Masoner, 28, a senior studying history and international studies. She is concerned about human rights, poverty, climate change – topics she argues shouldn't be politically tinged but are.
Masoner is also an officer with the campus Model United Nations, a student organization connected to the college's Department of Political Science and advised by a faculty member there. The organization teaches students about diplomacy and international relations.
She represents a shift – a slow-moving one, experts say – toward female students and women equaling and sometimes surpassing their male counterparts involved in political activism and the study of political science.
“We're half of the population,” Masoner said in a recent interview. “Despite the fact that we're half of the population, we're not half of the representation (in politics).”
It's difficult to measure interest in politics among college students, though government statistics provide insight into who might be willing to enter the fray.
The number of political science degrees earned by men and women has fallen since 2009, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That year, men earned 23,610 bachelor's degrees in the field, while women earned 20,226.
Men earned 20,599 political science degrees last year, and women earned 19,217, provisional data show.
But things are starting to change.
In 2017, women earned nearly 19,000 bachelor's degrees in political science – a 5% increase from the year before. The data from 2018 represent a 2% increase from the prior year.
A contentious 2016 election that saw a female candidate – Hillary Clinton – rise as the Democratic nominee for president could be one explanation for the uptick, said Megan Davis, a program associate for research at the American Political Science Association.
There's likely more to it, however.
“Though this change happens to occur around 2016, I would be hesitant to link the findings to the current political climate/the 2016 election/and so on, as degree completion is likely a lagging indicator,” Davis said in an email. “Students likely made the decision to work on their political science course work before then, though those factors may coincide with the same factors that contribute to the current political/electoral climate, they also may be mutually exclusive, and we cannot make a claim either way.
“It will be something to keep an eye on in the future, should this trend continue.”
National Science Foundation data show about half of college students in political science courses from 2000 to 2011 were women, though they slightly outnumbered men.
Officials with colleges in northeast Indiana say the number of women in political science has fluctuated in recent years.
Men often outnumber women, they say, but there have been years where that's not the case.
Purdue Fort Wayne's political science program is the largest in the area, and about 55% of students in 2002 and 2003 were women. The percentage has fallen, but the number of women in the program has risen since 2000, when only about a third of students were women.
The number rose to about 47% in 2017, and the percentage has remained there this year.
Michael Wolf, who chairs the department, said students chosen for national awards, internships and fellowships highlight the successes of women at Purdue Fort Wayne.
Five of seven students who interned in the past six years at the United Nations Population Fund in New York were women, he said. Wolf said 19 women and 22 men have received the Sally Merrill Award – given to the university's top political science student.
Chayenne Polimedio, who graduated in 2014, earned “an incredibly prestigious” fellowship with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he said.
“Every university nominates two candidates – and only 12 are chosen per year – and she was one of them in 2014,” Wolf said in an email. “It's truly incredible.”
Indiana Tech does not offer a political science major, and Trine University in Angola put in place a minor in the discipline this year.
Thomas Schneider runs the one-person political science department at the University of Saint Francis, where two of seven political science majors are women. He has not noticed an increase in interest among women in political science but said many women are involved in student government.
At Ivy Tech Community College, 22 women are among 63 students enrolled in three political science courses at the local campus. Faculty indicate most students take those classes as a transferable elective, not necessarily because of political aspirations or an interest in politics, college spokeswoman Jessica Neuenschwander said.
Leonard Williams, dean of Manchester University's College of Education and Social Sciences, said women make up between 40% and 45% of majors. Williams and other professors interviewed said many political science majors – including women – are there because they want to go to law school, not because they want to run for office or help guide campaigns.
But college campuses also are places where political ambitions take root, and Masoner – the Purdue Fort Wayne senior – is an example. She said she wasn't interested until she enrolled and starting meeting new people and discussing politics.
She envisions herself possibly running for office one day.
“I'm really interested in politics, and it's one of the big things I focus on in my life,” Masoner said.
Experts say more women are choosing to run for office or directly be involved with campaigns, but there are barriers to their involvement.
J. Cherie Strachan, a professor of political science at Central Michigan University, recently co-authored a book titled, “Why Don't Women Rule the World? Understanding Women's Civic and Political Choices.”
The book discusses political ambition and notes that many women have never been encouraged or told running for office or taking part in the political process is an option.
That's changed a bit as women – Sarah Palin, Clinton and others – pursue high-profile offices and show others that those positions are attainable. Strachan argues, though, that convincing women to take the plunge still takes work.
“We know women have to be asked repeatedly,” she said. “Men will get the idea on their own to run for office.”
Women also could hide their political ambitions because of attacks on female candidates, the author said.
“(They think) if that's what I'm going to have to put up with, then maybe I don't want to do it,” Strachan said.
Georgia Wralstad Ulmschneider is an associate professor at Purdue Fort Wayne, where she's taught a Women and Politics course since the 1980s.
“I remember just how difficult it was (then) to even find a political science textbook dedicated to women and politics,” she said.
That's less of a problem now, but she still sees women who are interested in politics from a different perspective. Where men are more likely to run for office or pursue front-and-center political roles, women tend to remain on the periphery as communications staff or campaigning for other candidates, she said.
“It kind of mirrors the greater Fort Wayne community – on City Council and running for mayor,” Wralstad Ulmschneider said, referring to the few female candidates for those positions.
Masoner sees herself as a leader. And maybe someday she'll be a political leader.
“Women have always been a political driving force, but they haven't really been the face of it,” Masoner said. “I love our country, and I want to be involved to make our country better.”
About this project
The makeup of elected governing boards could shift as more and more women campaign for public office and enter the political arena. Earlier this month, we began a series of stories looking at Women & Politics.
• A look at the challenges women face in deciding to run and serving on public boards, sometimes appointed, even when elected.
• The gender mix is changing in Congress and at other levels as women consider all options of public service.
• Fort Wayne has had a female mayor, but she served just 11 days, becoming part of the local history of women in politics.
• Fundraising success can make a difference in how far candidates go.
• A look at some of the training and development entities, such as The Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service series, that provide women guidance.
• The college arena is where some future lawmakers and political activists get their start.
• Words of wisdom from women who have experience on the political scene.