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Women in the Running

Women in the Running

By Maya Schenwar
t r u t h o u t | Report

Whether or not we elect a female president this year, the US has a long way to go when it comes to political gender equality.

America has pretty much agreed that, whether or not Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination, she will have made history. However, no matter the outcome of the primary season, the struggle for women's voices to be heard in the political sphere will be far from over. Despite all the focus on Clinton's gender over the course of her campaign, there's been surprisingly little discussion of the gender makeup of the political system as a whole.

Like the rest of the world, the US has been moving forward in terms of women in politics, but it's doing so in spurts and slower than many of its neighbors. Ten years ago, this country ranked 37th in terms of women's political representation. It now sits in 71st place, according to a recent Interparliamentary Union study.

Twenty-eight of the 50 states have not yet elected a female governor. And women make up only 16 percent of both the US House and the Senate.

Does this mean Americans are inherently more sexist than the people of Rwanda, Sweden and Argentina (the countries with the highest percentage of female politicians)? Probably not. According to a Gallup Poll taken before the 2000 election, more than three-quarters of Americans reject the idea that, "On the whole, men make better political leaders than women do."

So why aren't we moving forward faster? And is the advent of the first viable female presidential candidate giving the system a jolt?

Keeping It Normal

One roadblock to political equality for women may be an overly sunny self-perception on the part of Americans, according to Marie Wilson, founder of the White House Project, an organization aimed at upping women's political representation, and author of "Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World."

"People think we're already there," Wilson told Truthout. "They think we have a political meritocracy. As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as a fair country. That makes it harder to own up to the facts of the masculinity of the political system and the normalcy of recruiting men to run for office."

Even triumphs can be deceptive; there's a difference between achieving a milestone and establishing normalcy. The first woman to serve in the Senate took her oath in 1922. Yet in 1992, 70 years after that barrier was broken, the Senate contained only two women. (In November of 1992, four additional women were elected to the Senate and several more to the House, prompting the media to dub '92 the "Year of the Woman.")

Thus, according to Wilson, the legislature is still normalizing the inclusion of women, who are often snubbed when it comes to party leadership's picks for candidacy. Maintaining a high male-to-female ratio in Congress is considered a safe route for the parties to take, according to Alaska candidate Diane Benson, who is neck-and-neck with incumbent Republican Don Yong for the state's single House seat.

"I have had a tougher time with the party than with voters themselves," Benson told Truthout, describing her fight to win her current place in the race. "Women are perceived as less viable, and the Democrats in this state just want to make sure it happens, so they go with the person they really think can make it."

Another current "normality": At the present time, there are no women of color in the Senate. Benson, if she wins, will become the first Native American woman in the House. And in all of Congress, there's just one openly lesbian member.

So political progress for women has come in fits and starts - hitting a milestone and then stalling, moving two steps forward and a half step back.

Measured Momentum

Nowadays, the momentum of political representation is in "two steps forward" mode, according to Ramona Oliver, communications director at EMILY's List, which promotes Democratic, pro-choice female candidates.

"The Democratic wave of 2006 was the second-largest increase of women elected to federal office since 1992's 'The Year of the Woman,'" Oliver told Truthout. "Democratic women have continued to steadily increase their numbers in Congress over the last decade, and now with Nancy Pelosi leading the way as speaker of the House, we hope to make even more gains in 2008."

As Clinton and Obama faced off in North Carolina and Indiana on Tuesday, both states - neither of which has ever had a female governor - nominated women as their Democratic gubernatorial candidates. In November, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and former Indiana Congresswoman Jill Long Thompson will strive to become their states' firsts.

Wilson, who calls the past ten years an era of "slow progress," attributes much of the current female leadership push to the effect of groups like the White House Project, which actively recruits women to run for office. Those efforts are crucial, she said, to counteract the "play-it-safe" party politics that lead overwhelmingly to male nominees.

One undeniable site of progress lately has been enfranchisement: In 2006, 8.8 million more women than men voted. It's no coincidence that 2006 was also a banner year for female electees, according to Oliver, who quoted an EMILY's List adage: "When women vote, women win."

The Clinton Effect

According to Wilson and Oliver, 2008 promises to bring a fresh infusion of women to the political scene; in many ways, it already has. The excitement surrounding Clinton's candidacy has attracted female volunteers in droves. Wilson reports a dramatic increase in attendance at White House Project trainings. On the surveys filled out during trainings, women often note that they were inspired by the example of a woman running for president.

The Clinton effect also translates directly to the ballot, no matter how Hillary herself polls, according to Oliver.

"Senator Clinton's campaign for the presidency has created a tremendously positive environment for women candidates," Oliver said. "The increase in turnout for women this primary season has just been remarkable - on Super Tuesday alone, women voters made up between 55 and 63 percent of the overall voters. This level of turn out helps women up and down the ballot."

Watching Clinton's candidacy has also coaxed more women onto the ballot in the first place, according to Wilson.

"Women are getting more involved, from the school board to city council to state government to Congress," Wilson said. "We already knew this would happen - what would get them to run is seeing other women run. They can learn how to fundraise, they can learn how to do political strategy. But when we've done research on young women, they've said, 'I need to see women running.' That's the magic.... Men see men in politics all the time."

So, the presence of a viable female presidential candidate is helping to "make it normal" to see a woman running for high office - regardless of whether or not Clinton wins. "And," Wilson noted, "with the campaign going on this long, it's becoming about as 'normal' as it can get!"

Wilson added that, when it comes to breaking the barriers of electoral normalcy, both Clinton and Obama are "moving women along in a big way." Electing either candidate would force the party to break old nomination habits and trust the American public to think past superficial bias and prejudice.

At the Races

The presence of Clinton isn't the only factor that's boosted female candidates' odds in 2008; the absence of a host of stalwart incumbents also increases their chances. This year's multitude of Republican retirements means lots of open seats, and according to Oliver, EMILY's List has found that women candidates often do especially well in open seat races. (Barbara Mikulski, the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate, won her Maryland seat in 1986, when it was vacated by Charles Mathias Jr.)

"EMILY's List currently has pro-choice Democratic women running in seven of the ten most competitive open seats this year," Oliver said, adding that "special elections have already ushered three new fabulous women to Congress - Laura Richardson, Niki Tsongas, and Jackie Speier just a couple of weeks ago."

This election year also sees a number of female challengers vying for the seats of long-time incumbents. In February, lawyer Donna Edwards defeated eight-term Congressman Albert Wynn in the Maryland primary. Wynn later announced plans to resign from the House in June, prompting a special election that - in an overwhelmingly Democratic district - Edwards will probably win.

In Missouri, House hopeful Kay Barnes is running against four-term incumbent Congressman Sam Graves - a Republican with a NARAL Pro-Choice America rating of zero percent. Barnes, who was the first female mayor of Kansas City, helped found the Kansas City Women's Political Caucus and spent part of her early political career traveling the country, encouraging women to run for office, according to her campaign director, Steven Glorioso.

Being a female challenger is not without its struggles: Barnes must combat some easy, gender-based digs from the Graves camp, according to Glorioso.

"Graves is just now getting started with the usual attacks with which strong women have had to deal, like snipes from his underlings that a woman is not good with money or not strong on the military," he said. "But her male critics said many of the same things when she was mayor and she proved them wrong."

Diane Benson, too, has confronted gender-based obstacles on her path to the House. She notes that, as a woman, it's been harder for her to attract mainstream media attention, except when it comes to sensational, gender-specific topics. A front-page story in the Anchorage Daily News last week chronicled Benson's history of childhood sexual abuse - not a topic she wanted showcased in her campaign. The article, Benson said, fell into the mold of "portraying native women as victims, not as survivors who actually go on to achieve things." Media outlets often feel more comfortable telling that kind of story than following the progress of a female politician, she says.

"We need to elevate this discussion," Benson said. "It's almost like there's a fascination with women as victims, or doing womanly roles, rather than women in power."

In this sense, according to Benson, increasing women's political representation will depend on a deep-rooted attitude shift, as voters, party leaders and politicians begin to change their expectations about what it takes to win.

Ultimately, it seems, it is not one or another great milestone that will jet women toward political equality in the US. It's about the hard work of maintaining forward momentum, pushing for greater representation at all levels of government.

"We're in the habit, socially, of thinking that men are the ones in power," Benson said. "But we're starting to break that habit. By running, we continually break down those barriers."


Maya Schenwar is an assistant editor and reporter for Truthout.

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