Politics in America has changed considerably since women won the long desperate battle to vote almost 100 years ago. Obviously, the rules of the game have changed enormously in recent years as is evident from the current presidential campaigns. Party line politics that ruled both sides of the aisle for decades has fractured but, one noticeable change that hasn’t happened as quickly as we might have thought 20 years ago is the percentage of female representation in elected office.
Women hold only 19 percent of congressional offices and less than 25 percent in the state legislators. The numbers have remained stagnant for over two decades. No doubt considerable headway has been made since the activism of the Women’s Suffrage movement and pioneers like Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth; however, our advancement has pretty much stagnated since 1992.
Ironically that is the year the media coined “The Year of the Woman” in reference to four women being elected to the Senate which had never before occurred in a single year. In response to the headline-writer’s catch-phrase, Senator Barbara Mikulski, one of the aforementioned Senators, said, “Calling 1992 the ‘Year of the Woman’ makes it sound like the year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We’re not a fad, fancy, or a year.” Indeed, they were not a fad, but then again, female representation hasn’t grown as rapidly as expected.
The most flagrant reason is obvious: sexism, both historical and present-day. Women were forced to endure a knock-down, drag-out fight in order to get the vote due to the common sexism of the day. Women weren’t highly regarded in most intellectual areas and this much is evident when looking at some popular opinions of the time. For example, in 1867, literary giant Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “I never want to see the women voting, and gabbling about politics, and electioneering. There is something revolting in the thought.” Ouch, Mark! Though to his credit, his views, like many of the time, evolved. So, why are we still stuck?
In truth, sexism hasn’t necessarily evaporated, and though it may not be quite as prevalent, there is a double standard that cannot be ignored. Pundits took to the airwaves to speculate on Chelsea Clinton’s pregnancy and how Hilary Clinton’s pending role as grandmother could potentially affect her 2016 ambitions for the White House. Such consideration was not made when 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney proudly trotted his 18 grandchildren throughout the campaign trail—firmly cementing a barefaced double standard. Not to mention the constant attention paid to Clinton’s physical appearance and her penchant for pantsuits.
This chauvinism has led many female candidates to practice the politics of physical negation, in other words, an effort to find a look that is put-together but never extraordinary, so as to avoid unwanted attention to appearance. A recent survey sponsored by Name It. Change It., a non-partisan project from the Women’s Media Center, and She Should Run showed that no matter what is said about a female political candidate’s appearance, it has a negative impact on what potential voters think of her. It’s difficult to navigate within a system that harshly critiques a woman’s appearance while simultaneously disregarding her for being “too attractive to be taken seriously.”
Family demands are often cited as a common reason why women opt out of the political foray; however, according to a new report focused on women in federal races released by Political Parity, women claim that fundraising requirements and party support are actually the largest barriers to running for national office. Two-thirds of the women in the study said they find it difficult to raise the money needed to run effectively. Concerns weren’t necessarily about asking for money but instead, not being plugged into the right networks to make them successful when they try to raise funds.
Considering that women still face a pay gap in nearly every occupation with just 79 cents on the dollar to their male counterparts, the funding predicament is not entirely surprising. Furthermore, though women now hold almost 52 percent of all professional-level jobs, women lag substantially behind men in leadership positions with only 14.6 percent of executive officers being female. An even smaller portion of Fortune 500 CEOS are women, a measly 4.6 percent. Bottom line, women still lack access to the highest levels of wealth and power, both crucial assets for a successful campaign.
Modifications must be made to address the deterrents to women holding office. In Sweden, their ministry is 52 percent women and their parliament is 43 percent female. To accomplish this balance, Sweden requires “positive quotas” where half their candidates are women. They also have comprehensive childcare policies to help legislators manage their professional and family life. Other nations leading the way in female representation are Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and Rwanda. (Yes! Rwanda!) Most recently, newly-elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made headlines when he announced that half of his Cabinet ministers are women. His explanation was simple: “It’s 2015.”
Globally, research shows that even culturally divided and ethnically diverse nations end up with a better economic performance when they elect more women to national leadership offices. Rwanda leads the world in female representation with more female MPs (Members of Parliament) than males at 64 percent. While their current political climate was a result of tragedy, the outcome has proven exemplary.
Following the Rwandan genocide, in 1994, 70 percent of the country’s remaining population was made up of women. These women demanded power and changed the constitution to require women hold 30 percent of senior political positions. With more female representation, changes came fast to Rwanda: women took over the farms, gained the right to own land in 1999, and achieved equality in marriage.
As the more “talkative” sex, women are naturals at diplomacy. Take, for instance, the women of the Mano River Region, in Liberia. During the peak of the Second Liberian Civil war, in 2003, they came together to form the Mano River Women’s Peace Network (MARWOPNET) ultimately becoming a political force against violence. Their actions brought about stalled peace agreements, thus ending Liberia’s 14-year civil war. Eventually, MARWOPNET orchestrated the election of the country’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who’s held the office since 2006.
Perhaps the most effective method to achieve gender equality in government is an electoral system known as proportional representation. In other words, multi-seat districts instead of one-seat districts, so political parties win seats in proportion to their vote share. Basically, if like-minded voters (liberals, conservatives, progressives, what-have-you’s) hold 30% of the vote in a ten-seat district, its candidates win three of those ten seats as opposed to none. In other words, the majority does not take the whole pie but only their due share, thus creating a multi-party democracy with more slices to go around. This puts pressure on major parties because many of the minor parties regularly nominate candidates who broaden their appeal, such as female candidates.
We do have some multi-seat districts in the U.S. already. In Vermont, it ranges from one to six legislators per district and 41 percent are women representatives. In 1967, Congress passed a law mandating single-seat districts for House races, but that law could be rescinded (our constitution does not mandate single-seat districts). Moreover, state legislatures and local governments could easily adopt such methods by changing their own laws. In 2012, New Hampshire, another state with multi-seat districts, became the first state in the nation to have an all-female congressional delegation.
Those who have proposed this change have been met with predictable opposition; after all, many members of the “boys club” want it to remain as such. The power of incumbency is strong in Washington, and those at the top want to stay there.
With the myriad of issues facing the country from climate change to threats of terror, we need the best minds at the table to help move us forward. At least half of those heads should be women, and we must do everything possible to make that happen.