Huffpost Women
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Soraya Chemaly Headshot

Women in Politics: Why We Need More Women in Office

Posted: Updated:

It's not an exaggeration to say "Men Rule," just a statement of fact. What the men actively seeking to subvert women's rights need to understand once and for all is that everything is a "women's issue" and women have had enough.

Our country's rank for women's political representation, 78th in the world, is dropping and the gender gap in political ambition is growing with obvious ill effects for women's health, economics, education and work. This is pathetic and embarrassing. What was worse last week: The silencing of women in a public discourse about their own health and bodies or the arrogance and entitlement that made these men (and a few women) think they could get away with it. "Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics" is the name of a just-completed American University study on gender in U.S. politics and government that shows the political ambition gap between genders getting wider.

Some people don't see what the big deal is. But others understand why it's important and shocking and women, and their male allies, are coalescing in unprecedented ways to address the enormous gender imbalance in our government and the now glaringly obvious fact that the imbalance does us all -- particularly women, who make up more than half of the population -- a huge disservice. HERVotes, The 2012 Project and Women Unite March on Washington are three prime examples of women uniting to educate and mobilize voters. This response to destructive gender imbalances in power may be the only good and lasting result of what is a genuinely surreal Republican presidential nomination race. That party is poised to nominate a man who is the self-appointed, sweater-vested poster boy for complementarianism.

Three things have to happen. Women, and men who get it, have to:
  1. Use their voting rights.
  2. Run for office.
  3. Be visible and loud.

Vote

HERvotes is a coalition of 51 women's organizations focused on Heath, Economic and Rights for Women. The politicization of basic women's health issues and the threats to women's fundamental right to privacy has catalyzed this non-partisan response mobilizing women to recognize the risk to 12 major advances that affect their daily lives. The list of coalition members comprehensively covers the full array of issues that impact women. If you aren't clear on what the threats to rights you take for granted might be -- because you are busy, tired, trying to feed your family, stressed about work, taking care of your parents -- take five minutes to consider the fact that we are actually debating whether or not women should have access to birth control or maybe why your name change at marriage might make it difficult or impossible for you to vote because of targeted voter id requirements that don't affect men. Women make up the bulk of low-wage earners, are heads of households and are literally sick and tired of not having access to basic health and child care. "At the end of the day, the best way we can speak out is to vote," explains Lisa Maatz, the top policy advisor for the American Association of University Women which recently launched the "It's My Vote. I Will Be Heard." Campaign.

Run for Office

The 2012 Project is a national, non-partisan campaign determined to address this recruit, train and mentor women candidates. Why does it matter if women have a voice in politics? Clearly, because women's specific rights and interests are not protected otherwise. In addition, there is no way to separate the benefits that accrue by gender if you accept the fact that "women's issues" include, literally, everything -- health care, the economy, foreign policy, education. When women become legislators they:

1) Are more actively involved and advocate more in gender-salient issues: women's health, reproductive rights, child care and the economy (yes, that's a women's issue, too)
2) Are more responsive to constituents
3) Are more focused on cooperation, less on hierarchy
4) Understand what "transvaginal" means.

Unlike Hollywood, our government, in theory at least, is meant to represent its citizens. The pragmatic effects of male-dominated political and governmental decision-making have been particularly evident during the past few weeks and months of conservative social agenda campaigning. "Birth control? Really? In 2012?" disbelief was catapulted into real shock through the highly effective image of testosterone-only Congressional panels discussing women's reproductive health. But, in reality, that's just a blatant tip of the iceberg.

The goal of The 2012 Project is to increase the number of women in Congress and state legislatures by taking advantage of the once-in-a-decade opportunities of 2012. Constituent members include a broad range of organizations dedicated to training women across the political spectrum to run for office. When women run, they are just as likely as men to win -- but they are not running. The study details exactly why -- and it's not because of a biological mandate.

It is true that women participate in government and their numbers have increased since they started. And, yes, there are some very visible women but their visibility creates a false sense of influence and parity.

Again, why does it matter?

Well, first, there's the basic issue of the value of a representative democracy to citizens and pretending that we have one. We're attached to that idea. Second, young girls can't be what they can't see -- it's a vicious circle. Third, there is the matter of how women operate as elected officials. Despite their low numbers, female elected officials make a difference in the issues they prioritize, the bills they sponsor and cosponsor, the output they generate, and the extent to which they mobilize their constituents.

Many people just believe that women aren't interested, not ambitious enough, can't be bothered with all the ugliness of the public political sphere. However, the reasons are more complex. The study, completed by Professor Jennifer Lawless of American University's Women & Politics Institute and based on interviews with 4,000 male and female potential candidates for office, revealed the following:

"1. Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.

2. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin's candidacies aggravated women's perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena.

3. Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.

4. Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident and more risk averse than their male counterparts.

5. Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.

6. Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office -- from anyone.

7. Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks. In families where both adults are working (generally in high-level careers), women are roughly six times more likely than men to bear responsibility for the majority of household tasks, and they are about ten times more likely to be the primary childcare provider. This division of labor is consistent across political party lines."

Even more disturbing than the gap itself is that the disparity between women's and men's ambition for a future candidacy has increased. A smaller ratio of women to men in 2011 than 2001 reported interest in entering the electoral. The study ultimately concluded that "barriers to women's interest in running for office can be overcome only with major cultural and political changes." Even if 2012 turns out to be a banner year for women it will move the overall needle only slightly as women will complete in less than 1/3 of races this year.

Be Visible and Loud

The We Are Women March on Washington is being organized to take place on April 28th in all state capitals and the District of Columbia. To be clear: this is not a march against men -- this is a march against systematized sexism. It is a march for equal, human, civil rights for women. Men and women who believe in these rights are good for everyone are marching. Erin Nanasi, a writer, launched the March with her video expressing outrage at the marginalization of women and their interests by conservative politicians and legislators.

If you watched the video please note, despite the fact that this woman is sitting in a kitchen, she is in possession of a brain, has a sense of her own agency and believes she has fundamental rights. Although still nascent, the movements' Facebook page (there are a couple being consolidated), is adding thousands of people daily and has already signed up organizers in almost every state capital.

But it takes more than a march. It takes, as I heard journalist Ann Gerhart recently say, NOT thinking pushing a "Like" button is enough. It takes voting to support the work of organizations like HERvotes. It takes realizing that women shouldn't settle for feeling like they have "enough" equality because they are comparatively less subject to violence, brutality and marginalization as was again recently suggested to me. It requires openly Naming It and Changing It: and not accepting misogyny in Congress and state legislatures masquerading as well-meaning paternalism or "religious freedom." You either have to be ignorant regarding history or a self-aware liar to say "birth control is not about women's rights. It's about religious freedom." And, what it really means is women stepping up, running for office and winning.

Karen Middleton, president of Emerge America, which provides in-depth training for Democratic women who want to run for office and is a member of The 2012 Project explains it this way: "If 10 percent of the women who show up [to March] ALSO decide to step up and run for office, we will move the needle in America."

Half of the countries of the world today use some type of electoral gender quota for their parliaments. Electoral gender quotas are often understood as the best way to compensate for structural discrimination and barriers against women in politics. They are often used as a short-term, temporary method of jump-starting the participation of women to dispel the effects of inhibiting biases and create systematized change. Removing formal barriers, for example, giving women voting rights, is considered sufficient in the US. "Giving" women the right to vote created equal opportunity. The rest is up to individual women. It's the American way. However, real equal opportunity does not exist just because formal barriers are removed. Direct discrimination and a complex pattern of hidden impediments, everything from insufficient mentoring to informal, yet powerful networks, prevent women from running for office, being selected as candidates and getting a legitimate and effective share of political influence.

Countries that implement quotas are defining equality not in terms of individuals and opportunity, but in terms of institutions and results. These countries believe that if there are barriers to equality -- cultural, behavioral, political, religious -- then measures that compensate for those barriers are needed to achieve true equality. In this way, gender quotas do not discriminate against men, but compensate for biases that tilt the playing field. We like to pretend that those biases don't exist.

So here, individuals are what we are working with to challenge deep institutionalized biases and that is why The 2012 Project is dedicated to informing citizens about this challenge and encouraging women's participation.

Speaking earlier today at the announcement of the HERVotes campaign, Avis Jones De-Weever, Executive Director for the National Council of Negro Women, explained:" Women will not be silent. Women will not be bamboozled. Women will no be complacent. We know what is important in our own lives."

Enough is enough.