Women In Politics Democrats and Republicans
Where the Hell Are All the Women?
HILLARY’S HISTORIC RUN LEFT “18 MILLION CRACKS IN THE GLASS CEILING.”
By Gloria Feldt
But politics is, inescapably, about relationships. So when Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon materialized from the shadows to shake hands, I understood why we were meeting here: Emerge wanted to be seen in plan-hatching mode. Picking Switch over Durant’s signaled the group’s intent to become the new face of politics.
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They have a long way to go. Of the 10 candidates Emerge Arizona fielded during its first try in 2006, only three won, though “three others lost by less than 1,000 votes,” touts the group’s executive director, Dana Kennedy. Like Krista Pacion (“Pacion for the people”), 32, who campaigned for the state House of Representatives on, yes, Rollerblades across her sprawling rural district, all seven losing candidates plan to run again. Meanwhile, they’re attending party precinct meetings and doing the unsexy nuts-and-bolts work that builds name recognition and fund-raising contacts. One immediate payoff, according to Kennedy: “Six of us were elected delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.”
In this historic election year, we can’t talk about women running for political office without considering the importance of being Hillary, who nearly won her party’s presidential nomination. But despite Clinton’s groundbreaking run, Nancy Pelosi’s preeminence as the first woman Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and women like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holding top administrative positions, the dial for women in political leadership has moved excruciatingly slowly, from 3 percent of Congress in 1979 to 16 percent in 2008. Ninety-two years after Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to the House, America stacks up an embarrassing eighty-fourth among nations in the proportion of women holding national legislative office—far behind Rwanda, Austria, and Cuba. Men run City Hall in 90 of 100 largest cities; women make up just 16 percent of state governors and less than a quarter of state legislators. Even though women comprise the majority of voters, men, by and large, still decide the laws that govern our lives, from war and peace and equal pay policies to reproductive freedom. Just what is standing in the way of gender equality in political leadership? Where are all the women in this so-called representative democracy, and why aren’t they running?
LADIES IN WAITING
Initial attempts toward parity in the consciousness-raising ’70s were valiant, if not transformative. “Coalitions like the National Women’s Political Caucus took us out of the dark ages,” says Deborah Siegel, author of Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild. The Caucus was formed in 1971 to “increase the number of women in all aspects of political life.” These first efforts assumed, perhaps naively, that if they trained women in the mechanics of campaign organization, fund-raising, and media skills, they would naturally take their places in the governance panoply. But the culture hadn’t been prepared for women to hold political power, nor were women prepared for the shock of navigating an entrenched power grid in a political system almost devoid of female role models.
That’s why the White House Project, founded in 1998 by Marie Wilson to advance women’s leadership, has launched efforts to identify women qualified to be president. The 2002 list drew snickers that some nominees were lightweights, including former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, whose run for the White House was quickly smacked down. Deborah Carstens, a Washington, DC–based businesswoman active in electing pro-choice Republican women and a former WHP board member, recalls such bruisings when she says, “The path to change is onerous.”
Like the WHP, the Caucus, and the Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, many of the grassroots groups that have emerged to sweep women into office promote candidates regardless of political party; others, such as Emerge and EMILY’s List on the Democratic side, and the WISH List and the Richard G. Lugar Excellence in Public Service Series on the Republican side, are partisan. All believe focused action can bring women to political parity.
But these organizations also face surprising new challenges. Many feminist Obama supporters assiduously reject the notion that gender matters in candidate selection. Bitter verbal battles have erupted in the blogosphere about whether women have any obligation to support women candidates, causing the twentysomething feminist blogger Jessica Valenti to write in The Nation about a “sisterhood split.” Yet Emerge’s founder, Andrea Dew Steele, who was 34 in 2002 when she founded the California chapter, points out, “Men under 40 are 40 percent more likely to consider running than women. Young women don’t experience much discrimination. So they don’t realize the problem until they get older and have experiences like not making partner because they can’t work 100 hours a week with small kids.”
Jennifer Lawless, 33, Brown University political science assistant professor and coauthor of It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office, agrees that many young women don’t share the “gender conscious” impetus to vote for a woman; the good news, however, is that they may possess a stronger sense of possibility for themselves in political life. But if they do, there are few signs they’re acting on their belief in numbers that will rewrite the narrative anytime soon. Indeed, studies of attitudes among young women toward running for office show they aren’t jaded; they just don’t see themselves in the story. The WHP’s “Pipeline to the Future” 2000 survey of 18- to 24-year-olds found that “a legacy of elite politicians causes women to see the profession as unwelcoming…. Eighty percent of young people say it is very or somewhat hard for a woman to run for political office, compared to only 7 percent who say it’s hard for a man.” Little wonder that fewer than one in 10 women interviewed expressed intent to enter politics. It’s enough to make cynics wonder why interventions by organizations might be able to do what women have been unable or unwilling to do for themselves. Because, as Arizona’s Governor Janet Napolitano sums up: “You can’t win if you don’t run.”
Take the Money and Run?
Ilana Goldman took up the task of rejuvenating the nonpartisan Women’s Campaign Fund while “in a deep funk after the 2004 elections”; both she and the WCF were roughly 30 years old. Goldman promptly persuaded the board to rename it the Women’s Campaign Forum to reflect its broader mission to advance pro-choice candidates. She’s adamant that fund-raising is harder for women, partly because women don’t build their clout by opening their purses, and cites how women gave less than 30 percent of the donations to federal campaigns in 2006— though, promisingly, almost half of Clinton’s and 42 percent of Obama’s contributions came from women.
Keli Goff, a 29-year-old political commentator and author of Party Crashing: How the Hip Hop Generation Declared Political Independence, argues it’s even tougher for women of color. “White women have their difficulties, but they are getting farther faster in corporate America. Their networks are more like the old boys’ networks. That’s how you advance in politics, how you fund-raise too—you build your Rolodex. It can take tens of millions of dollars to run for national office. We’re not talking chump change.”
Ellen Malcolm founded EMILY’s List (“Early Money Is Like Yeast”), now one of the largest political action committees, in 1985 to leverage women’s giving to prochoice Democratic women and believes their success belies these assumptions. With average contributions running less than $100, Malcolm says, “We raised $11 million in the 2006 election cycle to help elect a record number of women to Congress.” Malcolm argues the biggest impediment to electing women isn’t gender or fundraising— it’s the power of incumbency. “In the typical election, about 98 percent of incumbents are reelected,” she says. “We look for vulnerable Republicans and open seats. But this means that instead of 435 [the total number of House seats] opportunities, you might have 25 where a Democrat could reasonably be expected to win.”
Both the WISH List cofounder, Candy Straight, and Judy Singleton, who founded the Lugar Series, point out that the numbers augur in the Democrats’ favor. Says Straight, at the start of the primary season, “One hundred forty-six Democratic women are running for the House, and 64 Republican women. The previous record was in 1992, when 140 Democrats and 82 Republicans ran. We Republicans are going the wrong way, while the Democrats are increasing ever so slightly.”
Singleton acknowledges that women’s unwillingness to place their political careers over family obligations caused the Lugar Series to give up thinking they could get most of their 1,500 graduates to run for office. Instead, they mentor women in the broader—and arguably, self-limiting— approach of influencing politics through public service, from PTA president to managing campaigns.
Dismayingly, every single female political group leader and elected official uttered stunningly similar words. Donna Edwards, the newest female House member (D-MD), admitted, “I went to everybody else to see if they would run. Women do this. We look to everyone else first, mostly to men.” Malcolm, of EMILY’S List, says, “Women tend to defer and be asked to run, where men go straight ahead and act on their ambitions.”
When the Women’s Campaign Forum confronted its failure to enlarge their candidate pool, they asked women politicians why they ran. The almost universal answer? “Because someone asked me.”
Yes , She Can!
Brown University’s Jennifer Lawless dubs women’s pervasive reticence to advance themselves in politics an “ambition gap” and says it’s one of the greatest factors holding women back. The fault is not in our stars but in ourselves? Are these political programs misguidedly channeling millions to help women overcome external barriers, real though they are, when the biggest barriers are within?
Clinton has shown beyond any doubt that women can be tough enough, smart enough, persistent enough, ambitious enough, and can raise enough money to compete in the biggest political arena. True, her candidacy has also shown that women who threaten the gender power balance will be subjected to vicious attacks from political opponents and pundits. Still, Clinton’s message, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time… it’s got about 18 million cracks in it,” has clearly been delivered to a new generation. Rachel Hirschberg, 36, a political fundraising consultant says, “The system is not set up for women to run…but as more attain high-powered jobs, they’ll realize the changes they can make in the world and attain the networks they need to succeed.”
Which brings me back to that Emerge Arizona meeting. I asked attendees what motivated them: Eveyette Mendoza, an 18- year-old graduate of the program, says her father beat her mother, and “it wasn’t right he had to go to jail for only 24 hours and got away with such horrible acts”; she someday wants to be governor to pass firmer domestic violence laws. Krista Pacion, the Rollerblader, said that as the first generation in her family to finish college she has a commitment to making quality public education available to others.
Lawless cites evidence that women in political office are more likely to prioritize issues that affect women intimately, such as health care, day care, equal pay, and abortion access. I recall a hot Women’s Equality Day in August of 1998, when almost every woman in the House of Representatives stood on the Capitol steps, a sea of brightly colored skirts, declaring solidarity across party lines to get federal employees’ health insurance coverage for birth control.
That they prevailed is significant, but that they saw the injustice of failing to cover contraception while covering other prescription drugs, including Viagra, happened only because of their gender sensibility—small but significant proof of the WHP’s tagline: “Add women, change everything.”