With Hillary Clinton the early front-runner in the 2016 Democratic primary, the United States may join the UK, Germany, Brazil and Argentina as democracies that have had a woman as their top leader. Yet the alarming reality is that American women are still vastly underrepresented in elected offices all across the nation. Remember the “Year of the Woman” in 1992? Two decades later women still hold less than 20 percent of congressional seats, despite composing a majority of the US population.
And compared to other nations, the United States is losing ground. America now ranks ninety-eighth in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature, down from 59th in 1998. That’s embarrassing: just behind Kenya and Indonesia, and barely ahead of the United Arab Emirates. Only five governors are women, including just one Democrat, and twenty-four states have never had a female governor. The percentage of women holding statewide and state legislative offices is less than 25 percent, barely higher than in 1993. Locally, only twelve of our 100 largest cities have female mayors.
The reality is that at the current glacial rate of progress, “women won’t achieve fair representation for nearly 500 years,” says Cynthia Terrell, chair of FairVote’s “Representation 2020” project, which has released a new study on women’s representation.
But the US can’t wait that long. Having more women in office not only upholds democratic values of “fairness” and “representative government,” but various studies have also shown that the presence of more women in legislatures makes a significant difference in terms of the policy that gets passed. In Patterns of Democracy, former American Political Science Association president Arend Lijphart found strong correlations between more women legislators and more progressive policy on issues like the environment, macroeconomic management, comprehensive support for families and individuals, violence prevention, and incarceration. Other studies have found that women legislators—both Republican and Democrat—introduce a lot more bills than men in the areas of civil rights and liberties, education, health, labor and more.
Globally, research has shown that ethnically diverse and divided nations that elect women rather than men to key national leadership offices end up with better economic performance. Columbia professor Katherine Phillips and her co-researchers found that for the most ethnically diverse nations, having a woman in the top national leadership position was correlated with a 6.8 percent greater increase in GDP growth in comparison to nations with a male leader. The authors attribute that to women leaders having a more participatory, democratic style than men, and more confidence from voters at managing difficult situations that require more inclusionary or cooperative approaches.
So electing more women is a national as well as a global imperative. But how can this be accomplished? We’ve already seen decades of heroic efforts by organizations like EMILY’s List and Feminist Majority to recruit, train, and fund more women candidates, as well as efforts by the Name It. Change It. campaign to combat gender stereotypes in politics and in the media. The National Organization for Women (NOW) and other women’s political organizations fought in the 1970s and 80s against the Democrats’ old boy network for nomination of more women candidates, as well as equal representation in party committees and structures, eventually succeeding in creating more internal female leadership (which can be a steppingstone to public office). To an extent, these cumulative endeavors have paid off: representation in Congress has increased from thirty-four women (six percent) before the 1992 election to a total of 102 (19 percent) in the House and Senate today (out of 535 seats).