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Election Day 2012: A Great Achievement for Women, But...

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There is no doubt that women won big on Election Day, earning a record number of seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate -- but before we break out the champagne and declare that gender equality has arrived in Washington, D.C., it's worth comparing our record to other countries. And considering the percentage of women in the U.S. House still trail the percentage of women in dozens of corresponding legislative bodies in other countries including Sudan, Uzbekistan, and, yes, Iraq -- it's clear that we still have a long way to go.

When the 113th Congress is seated on Jan. 3, 2013, one in five senators and more than 18.5 percent of house members will be women. These numbers represent all-time highs, and led many to opine that 2012 was "the year of the woman."

Beyond the numbers, women achieved a number of "firsts," as well.

  • Senator-elect Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) became the first lesbian elected to the Senate;
  • Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Army veteran, became the first disabled woman elected to the House;
  • For the first time in the history of America, a state -- New Hampshire -- will be represented by a full slate of women in both the House and Senate.

However, for all of the numerical success and impressive "cracks in the glass ceiling," to paraphrase Secretary of State Clinton, the truth is that the United States' record of sending women to Congress still borders on abysmal.

Even accounting for the gains made this year, the United States would rank a paltry 86th in terms of how many women are elected to the lower house of government.

A country like Nepal serves as exhibit "A" of the mountain the United States still has to climb in terms of gender equality. Ranked towards the bottom (123 out of 135 countries studied) for overall gender equality by the World Economic Forum, Nepal still far outpaces America in terms of female representation in government with one of every three seats in the Nepalese lower house filled by a woman.

Another example comes with the North African country of Mauritania. Ranked 119th in the same WEF study, Mauritania's lower house is 22 percent female. Though the U.S. Senate features a higher percentage of women than Mauritania's upper house, it is reprehensible that America would rank behind such an anti-female country by any metric.

Those who believe it's apples and oranges to compare ourselves to countries not of the same economic and social strata, can look at our allies and competitors and see the same disturbing trend. The following list measures total female representation in national government:

  • South Africa: 42.3 percent
  • Argentina: 37.4 percent
  • Spain: 36 percent
  • Germany: 32.9 percent
  • France: 26.9 percent
  • United Kingdom: 22.3 percent
  • Italy: 21.6 percent
  • China: 21.3 percent
  • Russia: 13.6 percent
  • Japan: 10.8 percent
  • Brazil: 8.6 percent

And let's not forget, America has yet to elect a woman to fill the executive branch. Germany, Argentina, the U.K and Brazil have all had female heads of state.

No one is trying to take away the accomplishments of Baldwin, Duckworth and the dozens of women who will line the halls of Congress next year, but perhaps Debbie Walsh, Director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, put it best when she said that, "the challenge will be that, when these things happen, they are not the first and the last time they happen, that there are more women following them. And I think there will be."