Blog RSS

Why Are Women Only 17% of Congress?

| September 5, 2012

As Michelle Obama delivered her outstanding speech at the Democratic Convention last night, at least one network ran a reminder across the bottom of the screen: Michelle Obama graduated from Princeton, and Harvard Law School. Oh, yes, that’s right. This self-proclaimed “Mom-in-Chief” is also brilliant. With a speech like that — arguably better written and delivered than any we’ve heard this election season — she should run for office herself. (President, 2016 anyone?)

Of course many women do run for office, but only belatedly find out elections can look far different depending on the gender of the candidate. This is often true whether the race is for city council or president. Widespread sexism is a major barrier to women’s equal representation. This is why projects like Name It. Change It., which seeks to identify, prevent and end sexist media coverage of women candidates and politicians are so important.

A group of experts in the field of elections spent the day in Charlotte yesterday discussing women running for office. We were brought together by Swanee Hunt, the former ambassador to Austria, philanthropist and women’s advocate. One of her new initiatives, the non-partisan Political Parity, intends to double the number of women in Congress by 2020. That would mean women would occupy 34 percent of the seats, instead of 17 percent -- a number Debbie Walsh of Rutgers’ University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) calls “pathetic.”  The 17 percent figure puts the United States in something like 94th position in terms of women’s participation in government.

CAWP’s new effort, The 2012 Project, presented some encouraging numbers: women broke the record filing to run for the U.S. House this year: almost 300 did so. More than 160 survived their primaries—and there is hope that in November women will break the 20 percent marker.

And so, yesterday 100 invited women leaders of the Democratic Party (a similar gathering was held at the RNC) sat down to explore women running, and winning. The Women’s Media Center’s Name It. Change It. project is a partnership with Political Parity and She Should Run sponsored by the Embrey Family Foundation and the Barbara Lee Foundation.

Name It. Change It., regularly tracks sexist and gendered coverage of women in politics (you can read some of the many examples on their blog, or follow them on Twitter), but they’ve also produced a media guide to help reporters (and everyone) spot the sexist and gendered coverage of women candidates and politicians.

At the Name It. Change It. panel discussion in the afternoon, which followed a morning of analysis and hard-core, necessary statistics, we got down to the real-life experiences of several successful Congressional candidates. Sitting with us on the panel, led by Sam Bennett, head of She Should Run:  Congresswoman Terri Sewell, Alabama’s first black woman representative, who told of intrusive and inappropriate questioning of her as a single woman running for office; and Latina Annette Taddeo-Goldstein, who ran for South Florida’s 18th District in 2008. She raised $1.3 million dollars but found herself in a “beauty contest” with media concentrating on her looks, as opposed to her positions. Others told of fabricated video and deliberately sexual front-page innuendo meant to derail their campaigns.

Attorney Gloria Allred, and To the Contrary host Bonnie Erbe rounded out the panel with their years-long experience seeing the sexism, and battling it. Actor/activist Ashley Judd earlier in the day urged women to run, promising that if you step forward, we women will support you. And we got to meet Katherine Archuleta, who is political director of the Obama re-election campaign--the first Latina to hold that position on any major presidential campaign.

The day was kicked off by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Her advice for battling the war against women underway: “Don’t agonize, organize.”

It was money on the mind of famed pollster, and Name It. Change It. partner, Celinda Lake. She said all of her pages of Power Point could be summed up this way: what women candidates need is money. Help them get it, tell them how to spend it, and there will be more women in elective office.

Getting women to run is the first step, but making sure they can fight on a level playing field is equally important.

Comments