By: Haerin So, Co-Director of Strategic Planning and Public Outreach
Ever since America gained independence in 1776, the governance of our country has never once fallen directly in the hands of a woman. Although there has been significant progress in the realm of women in politics, the measures currently in place to increase civic engagement in women are not enough. 50.8% of the U.S. population identify as female, yet only 23.7% of members of Congress are women. In other words, for every 4 congresspeople, only one is a woman, solidifying the lack of gender equality and equal representation in the country’s biggest decision-making body, even if women have the same qualifications as men. The inequality in gender representation underscores the sentiment of the American people and their voice in the status quo.
Women in Congress have demonstrated time and time again they are more effective in reaching bipartisan support, such as the budget deal by a bipartisan group of women Senators that brought immediate relief to workers affected by the U.S. government shutdown of 2013, known as one of “the biggest bipartisan success stories” of modern history. Equality in high political offices is necessary because if elected, female politicians make the concerns of women, children, and families “integral to their policy agendas.” Because of the apparent lack of female representation in politics, the diminishing focus on central social issues and continued cyclical nature of ignorance poses a risk to future generations of women, but also indirectly affects men through their families. And, on controversial topics that surround women such as abortion and reproductive rights, there are simply not enough seats for women at the table to be included in the decision-making process, such as in the case of the Alabama abortion law passed in May 2019.
Furthermore, what’s frustrating to me, a young woman passionate for politics, is that-- more often than not--younger generations of women feel discouraged to run for political office, much of which can be attributed to the frustration and stigma around women in politics. A study conducted by the Brookings Institute has indeed established evidence of a drastic political ambition gap⎼women continually underestimate their abilities and chances for success and forces them to be less likely to consider seeking public office, especially in the presence of men. As Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has continuously emphasized throughout her political career, the rise of women and any other underrepresented group of people does not have to come at the expense of others, but rather, simply attaining equality.
Now these three facts are clear: 1) women are underrepresented in high political offices, and 2) when elected, women benefit their communities greatly, but 3) women are discouraged from running. So… how can we start to fix fact number 3 in the status quo?
- Providing more funds and opportunities for women to run.
Politica; funds are the most crucial component of a campaign as they are used to establish a candidate’s presence to potential voters, which can, more often than not, predetermine their chances of winning. Although the cost of launching a campaign is immense and a deterrent to both sexes, "women do not receive or raise the same amounts of money," as the majority of donors are men—contributing to an overall disencouragement of women to run in the first place. Furthermore, there is an underlying continuation of neglect to women of color; in 2006, black candidates raised 47 percent less funds than white candidates in state legislative races and Latinos faced similar conditions. Equality, no matter what kind, will overlap and intertwine itself with other qualities, such as gender and race. In order for women of all backgrounds to act as catalysts for change in political offices, action must be taken—either by ensuring a fair race without sole dependence on PAC funds and private donor support (like Senator Gillibrand has proposed through the use of a “Clean Elections Act”), or by providing more funding directly dedicated to female candidates.
- Connecting women with mentors and political leadership training programs.
In order to keep up with the rise of women to powerful positions in all fields, it’s important that the next generations are inspired to take those same leaps. In fact, workplace professionals who have been mentored often find greater success in their careers, including promotions, raises, and increased mobility opportunities, which can also be applied in the realm of politics. Mentorship can be through the form of one-on-one training or tailored professional development training, solely dedicated to provide a potential female candidate with the right tools for the path in politics. Hundreds of pre-existing organizations and institutions in America aim to teach as many women and girls as possible about their importance to politics and properly educate and train women to run for office, but unfortunately, do not gain the recognition they deserve. Political institutes and schools like the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership and the Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics, or other partisan and nonpartisan organizations like Get Her Elected, She Should Run, and Higher Heights for America, all work to train women through professional development and provide networking opportunities with women on the Hill. Furthermore, simultaneous with the rise of youth advocacy networks are organizations centered on increasing political involvement in girls and younger generations, like Running Start. Founded in 2007, Running Start has reached over 15,000 high school, college, and young professional women; furthermore, 1 in 2 alums and trainers of Running Start are people of color, and out of all of Running Start’s alums that have chosen to run, 90% have won, indicating that such diverse programs have a positive and substantial effect on participants. (Author’s note: I was originally introduced to Running Start through friends, but I got to learn more through this research paper.)
- Revising American civics education to be more inclusive.
Civics education, intended to prepare students to be educated citizens and sustain future democracy, relates directly to politics, as students learn about the structure of U.S. Government, voter participation, and how to make their voices heard—all factors can affect the future of representation in politics. Particularly for minorities, American educators fail to acknowledge the disproportionate exclusion of minorities from civics education, which paired with other structural barriers, can lead to decreased civic participation. Furthermore, compulsory civics education will inevitably reach a younger female audience as all girls will have exposure to politics and civic engagement. Evidently, making changes in civic education leads to a greater understanding of American civics. Moving forward, the same concept can be applied to incorporating curriculum with themes of female empowerment, the importance of gender, racial, and sexual minority votes, and the stagnant progress of equal representation in all forms of government—all in hopes of increasing awareness and bringing more interest to political engagement, starting at a young age.
- Reduce stigma around working parents and at-home responsibilities of women.
Lastly, when looking at the grand picture of gender parity, America must fight to destigmatize the concept of women in the workplace, beginning with abandoning the traditional “woman’s role” in the home and encouraging women to pursue their careers and dreams while leading a family life simultaneously. On the Hill, progress is in the making; the first lactation room in the House was installed in 2007, the first women’s restroom off the House floor was added in 2011, the first ever Moms in the House caucus, with 25 mothers of school-aged children, was established in 2019, with more to come. Women are strong leaders and catalysts for change, and should be encouraged to handle leading both a career and family life. Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, the first woman to give birth while serving in the Senate, was the reason behind a unanimously-passed resolution in the US Senate to bring children under age one to the floor and allows women to breastfeed during votes, to which she commends the Senate as “leading by example and sending the important message that working parents everywhere deserve family-friendly workplace policies.” Furthermore, it is time to break the social stereotype surrounding a woman’s responsibility to society, constituting of staying at home and taking care of the household. Aside from reforms in the workplace, America needs to recognize and promote the importance of equal partnerships at home; Representatives Jennifer Wexton of Virginia and Kim Schrier of Washington often credit their success to having a supportive partner. By emphasizing parallel responsibilities within families and relationships, women are given more liberty to be ambitious and dedicate their time to their interests, whether it's their career or other passions. In sum, Americans can rise to be leaders in society, no matter their gender—but it all starts with disintegrating traditional patriarchal and domineering views of women.
Although the percentages of women in Congress and other municipalities increase every election year, the stagnant and relaxed growth of women in politics is not reflective of the rapid progress of women elsewhere in America. A nation with 50/50 parity—uncharted territory—is far from reality, but traditional reasoning behind delaying this progress, like stigmatizing women in underrepresented areas, is long overdone. Let’s face it, America. The year is 2020 and women are not afraid to make noise; the only option from here is to embrace change and support the rise of equality, starting with equal gender representation in politics.