On Friday, I joined PBS's To the Contrary to talk about the shortage of women in elected office. The segment revolved around She Should Run (SSR), a bipartisan, non-profit dedicated to "dramatically increasing" the number of women in elected office.
While the conversation was limited to a few minutes and a rather narrow scope, a real discussion about women's role in American politics ought to start with the founding of our nation -- a time when there was little tolerance for women's participation in the political arena. Similar to today, politics in the early republic was a dirty, dishonest business. And, as such, it was in those days clearly a man's world. (See Joanne Freeman's book Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the Early Republic.)
That's why for intelligent women, their sphere of political influence was understood to reside within the home. Through their roles as wives and mothers, women supported the country by ensuring that their husbands and children were raised with republican principles. They were, in effect, political moral compasses for men.
Two centuries later, gender roles have clearly evolved. Today, nearly a quarter of women out-earn their spouses; women earn the majority of bachelor's degrees, master's degrees, and now PhD's; women make up 50% of the workforce; and women's purchasing power has exploded, with women serving as the primary consumer of everything from groceries to cars.
As a result, women no longer serve on the sidelines in the political arena. In 2008, two women ran on the presidential ticket. A woman recently rose to become the first female Speaker of the House and there is a growing list of very public female figures, including Karen Hughes, Dana Perino and Valerie Jarrett.
Despite all the gains women have made in recent decades, however, women in America are underrepresented in public office. Women only hold 17% of Congressional seats, comprise 23% of state legislatures, and maintain 6 gubernatorial seats. Despite 2010 being the "Year of the Republican Woman," the outcome wasn't so spectacular. Out of 145 GOP House candidates, only 15% went on to win seats. And only one senate candidate, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, actually won her race. Other high-profile candidates like Carly Fiorina (CA), Christine O'Donnell (DE), Linda McMahon (CT), and Sharron Angle (NV) all lost.
These lagging numbers have led women's groups on the left to suggest the feminist movement has only seen limited success. Activists like Gloria Feldt, author of No Excuses, argue sexism is still to blame for much of this discrepancy in the political arena. While SSR doesn't go this far in its assessment of the political sphere, it does suggest that "institutional" barriers, especially in fundraising, make it more difficult for women to break into political networks.
To be clear, I'm not Pollyannaish about the challenges facing women interested in holding public office. Republican pollster Leslie Sanchez does a great job illuminating the sexism that plagued both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin's 2008 campaigns in her book You've Come A Long Way, Maybe. And it's not just media scrutiny; a woman who is not part of the political "establishment" will find it more difficult to integrate into what is still in many ways an "old boys" network. And anyone who's been within inches of a campaign knows that running for office gives "work-life balance" a whole new meaning. The reality of campaigning -- fundraising, events, travel -- is difficult for anyone, let alone a mother who wants to see her family.
All that said, this is only a partial picture of politics today. To focus too much attention on achieving gender parity in politics is to ignore all the other important ways women impact political life. The question remains: is passing legislation all that matters? Or should we focus -- as our Founding Fathers did -- on the principles being advanced?
If the latter is the case, then women committed to limited government and individual rights are influencing and directing politics everyday without necessarily being in elected office. Groups like the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW) have emerged on college campuses across the country to expand intellectual diversity. Female columnists and writers abound in print and online, offering insight and analysis about political values and trends. Women are over-represented throughout the state think tank system, which directly affects policy at the state level. And, the Tea Party -- presumably the most important political movement in decades -- is organized and run overwhelmingly by women.
The fact is there are all sorts of ways people can affect the political process. But men and women are different -- we share different talents, aptitudes and interests. And if women are more inclined toward organizing bodies on the ground or writing about the implications of policy, why not embrace these strengths, rather than undermine them?
Gender equality means equal opportunities for all; but gender equality does not require gender parity. To wish for that is to ignore the very strengths that make women different.
Sabrina L. Schaeffer is executive director of the Independent Women's Forum.