Women have never been a dominant force in American politics. From the beginning, our political voices have been silenced or discounted. After over a century of disenfranchisement, American women did not obtain suffrage until 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. A look back on the 95 years of women’s political enfranchisement reveals a myriad of both triumphs and shortcomings. The triumphs aggregate with each passing election cycle: female voters have outnumbered male voters in every presidential election since 1964; the proportion of eligible women who vote has surpassed the proportion of eligible men who vote every year since 1986; there are currently over 100 women serving in Congress for the first time ever; the number of high-profile female political leaders such as Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and Condoleezza Rice has grown steadily over the past decade. And yet, women remain severely underrepresented in the American political arena.
The current state of women’s representation in elected office does not reflect our population; women make up 50.8 percent of our citizens, but only 20 percent of the Senate, 18 percent of the House of Representatives, and 10 percent of all governors. At its current rate, the United States will not reach political parity—an equal distribution of men and women in elected office— for 500 years. This is unacceptable. In fact, while in 1998 the U.S. ranked a modest 59th in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature (the highest it has ever been on this particular list), it has slipped dramatically in recent years and is currently ranked 73rd behind countries such as Saudi Arabia, China, and Afghanistan.
Besides the fact that an increase in the number of women in office would, in the spirit of democracy, more accurately reflect this nation’s population, political parity improves society in many ways. According to former American Political Science Association President Arend Lijphart, there is a strong correlation between the number of women legislators and the output of progressive policies on issues like the environment, macroeconomic management, comprehensive support for families and individuals, violence prevention, and incarceration. In addition, when women run for office, there is a ripple effect: female citizens become more interested and actively involved in politics.
Political Parity, an advocacy group, has compiled fact after fact about what happens when women serve in elected office. Women are more likely to cite policy goals as their motivation, rather than power or prestige. Women sponsor and co-sponsor more bills and enlist more co-sponsors than their male counterparts. Women, on average and across parties, are 31 percent more effective at advancing legislation and see continued success further into the legislative process. In other words, when women serve, everyone stands to benefit.
Despite all of the evidence that women should serve in elected office, the fact remains that they do not run. No differences emerge in women and men’s fundraising receipts, vote totals, or electoral success. Yet, women remain severely underrepresented in U.S. political institutions . They compete in less than one third of all political races. This is due to a substantial gender gap in political ambition. In a 2011 study by the Women & Politics Institute, 4,000 male and female potential candidates were surveyed about their future political opportunities. These results were compared to a 2001 study, and it appears that despite the emergence of high profile women in politics over the past 10 or so years, the gender gap in political ambition has actually increased. The percentage of women who expressed interest in running for office dropped from 18 to 14 percent . When women do run, it is more likely that they will run for local or community offices. While these offices are valuable, it is imperative to have women serving at all levels of government.
A reason women do not run is that they are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates. In fact, 62 percent of women surveyed incorrectly believed that women do not perform as well as men during campaigns . Women actually perform just as well as men after making the initial decision to run. So what is actually holding us back? The 2008 election cycle should have been a milestone for women in politics, as Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were integral to the presidential campaign. However, after 2008, there was a dip in the number of women running. The Women & Politics study found that the aggressive and overtly sexist ways Clinton and Palin were (and continue to be) treated in the media during their candidacies actually worsened women’s perception of gender bias in the electoral arena.
Additionally, according to the study cited above, women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns. Women expressed more discomfort at the prospect of supporting a negative ad, shied away from asking friends and family for campaign donations, and were more hesitant than men about exposing their families to the stress and attention associated with running a campaign. This may be due to the fact that women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks—yet another factor contributing to women’s decreasing interest in running for office.
Another reason is that women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office. Men are almost 60 percent more likely to assess themselves as “very qualified” to run for office, while women are more than twice as likely than men to rate themselves as “not at all qualified.” Women were 16 percent less likely to even consider running for office in the future. These differences remained even when women had advanced in their careers. This reflects a societal trend: men are given the benefit of the doubt, while women must prove their competency—even to themselves. In other words, despite evidence to the contrary , women refuse to believe they are candidate material. Being a female candidate has its challenges, but there are measurable advantages to running like a girl.
A final crippling factor is that women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office from anyone. When women are asked, they are just as likely as men to respond positively to political recruitment. This discovery has been crucial. If we want to see more women in office, there is a simple way to start: ask. There are programs doing just that. The Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School encourages women to run through its political campaign practicum, “From Harvard Square to the Oval Office.” The political action committee EMILY’s List has helped over 800 women run and win their campaigns. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation developed Keys to Elected Office, a free app that provides research and advice for female candidates and officials.
Progress is possible; we have the tools. Now comes the hard part: we must eradicate the belief that women are not worthy of elected office. It is not the voters who must be swayed—it is the women.
These words belong to Geraldine Ferraro, the first female candidate for vice president on a major ticket. It has been over thirty years, and her words still ring true. We must reject the status quo. The slow trickle of progress must become a steady stream. To all the ladies out there: consider this your official invitation to run.