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Why Don't We Have More Women Politicians?

Women are more visible in the political realm than ever before: Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton have all made it to the top of their profession. To a casual observer, it may seem as though American women are breaking the proverbial glass ceiling. They’re not.

Despite our status as the world’s premier democracy, the United States ranks 74th in the world when it comes to female lawmakers, behind Venezuela (71), Austria (27), and Angola (10). Sure, other nations have quota systems to help women in the political ranks, but the United States, with all its ideals, shouldn’t need such things.

Perhaps sexism’s to blame, and family and child rearing is an obvious social barrier. Women remain the primary caregivers and can find it difficult to balance children with a career, not to mention a campaign staff. But familial obligations aside, plenty of women simply don’t feel competent enough for public office. “A man and a woman can have the same exact resume, but a woman won’t feel like she has the qualifications to run for office,” says Andrea Steele, whose organization, Emerge America, trains Democratic women how to run for office. “This is an idea that we have to go out and debunk.” Women focus on the qualifications they lack, and those prerequisites include an iron stomach.

“A lot of women find the mechanics of politics daunting and distasteful,” says Steele. “They say, ‘I have to fundraise? They’re going to probe into my personal life?’ The whole arena is off-putting.” Erin Vilardi from the nonpartisan White House Project also used the word “arena,” telling me, “When politics become partisan, uncivil, it turns women off. It doesn’t look like an arena where you can get something done.” Other times women just don’t feel wanted in political expeditions.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women are more likely to go into office after being recruited. “Most women state representatives ran for their first elective office because of encouragement, which echoes the findings of recent studies of candidates and potential candidates,” write the researchers in their report, “Poised to Run.” San Francisco School Board member Rachel Norton told me that she ran because a friend suggested it, and New Mexico State Representative Karen Gianni said the same thing. Even after being asked, however, sometimes women want a helping hand.

There are dozens of organizations, networks, and PACs dedicated to training and electing female lawmakers. Republicans have groups like the Wish List and the National Federation of Republican Women, and Democrats have their own groups, such as EMILY’s List and Steele’s Emerge America. Women who enroll will learn the same standard skills men would learn: How to speak concisely, lessons on community organization, and tips on messaging—but from an entirely different perspective. “We look at it through a gendered lens,” says Vilardi of the nonpartisan White House Project. As Steele mentioned above, fundraising proves to be quite the foible for female politicians. In most circumstances, women are fantastic fundraisers; when it comes to asking for themselves, they buckle.

Women-centric groups like Vilarde’s help women reframe the debate: “We make an assessment of a woman’s relationship with money, lessons she learned as a child. We do role playing exercises where she makes an ask.” Of course money’s hardly the only hurdle women face when launching a campaign, and training groups tackle all the stock subjects.

Naturally family comes up. “The issue of family, kids, is big on the campaign trail,” explains Vilardi. Just look at all the questions surrounding Elena Kagan, and the stink over Sarah Palin’s ubiquitous brood. Women, unlike men, are asked to explain where, how, and why their children do or don’t exist. Apart from family, though, there’s another F-word female lawmakers routinely face: fashion.

Apart from Representative Charlie Rangel’s bowties, not many male lawmakers fuel sartorial stories the same way that Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have. “Women dress professionally in campaign ads, which suggests they need to prove themselves,” points out CAWP’s Kira Sanbonmatsu. Rarely do you see a woman with rolled up sleeves, her top button undone, walking down Main Street, as male candidates are wont to do. A woman needs to appear competent for the public, and her political party.

When asked what female candidates can anticipate on the trail, Vilardi says, “Be prepared for your political party to not be as excited about you as they are about even a less qualified man.” Sanbonmatsu from CAWP contends that state parties “haven’t necessarily thought of women as candidates, although it varies from state-to-state.” She and her peers report that more female than male state lawmakers—15 percent over 8 percent in state Senates, and 24 percent over 15 percent in the Houses—claim they got into politics after being asked by a party official, rather than to fulfill of a life-long dream. Public office is not just a job. It’s a vehicle—a means to an end.

“Women run for office to make a change, to impact legislation. They run for an issue or cause,” says Candy Straight, founder of the WISH List. Lisa Witter from the progressive consulting group Fenton Communications, agrees: “For women, politics is not a power platform. Women come to get the things done.” This may help explain female politician’s legislative styles.

Various studies indicate that women are more effective and efficient lawmakers than men. Stanford and Chicago University researchers jointly found that women introduce and pass more bills and send more money to their constituents. Female politicians also appear to introduce more community-oriented bills, like Representative Carolyn McCarthy’s ongoing mission to end corporal punishment once and for all.

There are a variety of hypotheses to explain these trends. “Women have more hands-on experience from everyday living,” says Sue Lynch, executive director of the National Federation of Republican Women. “That allows us to speak from the heart in a way that I don’t see in men.”

Vilardi, meanwhile, says that women keep three things in mind when approaching a problem: product, process, and priorities, the latter of which are “honed by different life experience than men.” Vilardi cites “family issues” and “domestic violence” as two types of legislation female lawmakers frequently undertake. Despite people’s divergent views, most agree that women tend to be more bipartisan and open to civil discussion than their male counterparts.

Perhaps this bipartisanship originates in the female lawmakers’ “issue-oriented” approach. With a goal in mind, they’re perhaps more inclined to iron out the details and see it through. Then there’s what Vilardi and Steele say about distaste for discord. Women don’t want to rant and rave on Capital Hill; they want to do their job. While their Republican colleagues regularly decry legislation, Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins regularly work with Democrats to get things done in a civil manner.

Of course not all female lawmakers are entirely bipartisan: Many would argue that Democrats Pelosi and Barbara Boxer break that mold. The same could be said about Palin and Clinton, too. More women may be soon added to that list.

There are 23 women currently running for federal office. Eight are Democrats. The remaining 15 come from the GOP. Five of the Democrats are incumbents. Considering the nation’s current anti-incumbent trend, sitting female lawmakers like Boxer may be ousted, and be replaced by Republicans. Even more worrisome, if female lawmakers get caught up in the tide, they’ll become just as divided as their male colleagues, undercutting the aforementioned bipartisanship. That can’t be good for the legislative process.

Either way you cut it, women are going to be impacted come November, and America will never look the same. That could very well be a good thing, because if reports of efficiency and bipartisanship are to be believed, female lawmakers could be exactly what our struggling nation needs right now.


Illustration by Matthew Manos.

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