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Madeleine M. Kunin Headshot

Where Are The Women?

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I already miss Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

During the President's state of the union addresses it was reassuring to see her sitting behind him. It will take some time for me to get used to John Boehner, not only because of his different politics, but also because once again, the Congress is returning to an old boys club.

The House Republican leadership, known as Boehner's Boys, is -- well, yes, boys. Nancy Pelosi is running for minority leader, so there may be one female face in the huddles around microphones in Congress.

But for the first time in 30 years, the number of women in the U.S. House of Representatives is likely to drop.

In 2010 women comprised 17% of the Congress, giving us the distinction of placing 73rd -- yes -- 73rd -- in the world.

The Republican sweep was the big story of the mid-term election, but a sub-text is that it was not a good year for female candidates of either party.

Yes, women got a lot of press, and much of it was not good. Extreme candidates like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada and Linda McMahon in Connecticut didn't make it. Wealthy candidates, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, who spent bundles of their own money, didn't succeed in California. But the perception was that women were running everywhere. In fact, a few more women ran for office, but a few less won.

Republican women, like Republican men, did better than before. In 2010, 56 democratic and 17 republican women have been in the House. That proportion will change slightly as seven new Republican and four new democratic women will take their seats. A Republican woman, Kelly Ayotte, was elected to the Senate from New Hampshire.

News was made in South Carolina, which had the distinction of having zero women in the state Senate, but now has made history by electing a Republican woman of color as Governor.

The first woman of color from Alabama was elected to the U.S. House.

The conclusion of this election cycle is that there was a lot of noise about female candidates, but not much action.

We had assumed that women were making progress towards the goal of equal representation. The numbers tell us, we have to work harder, to inspire more women to run, at every level. Coming off of one of the most negative campaign seasons in history, this may be a hard sell.

Our only alternative is to give political leadership back to the boys, and so far, they haven't done all that well in responding to America's hopes and fears. No mater how nasty politics is, and it's not about to change soon, women and men have to work for more women to win more seats at the tables where the decisions about jobs, global warming, education, health care will be made. We can't afford to be marked "absent."

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.