Why Aren’t There More Women In Politics?
- Nov. 9, 2012
- 1 Comment
The United States voted in its first bearded president in 1864 with Abraham Lincoln’s reelection, and its first left-handed leader was James Garfield in 1881. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first with a physical disability in 1933, and the first Roman Catholic was John F. Kennedy in 1960. Finally, the election of 2008 brought our first African-American president, Barack Obama.
American history, however, has yet to see its first Madam President.
Hillary Clinton came the closest to the seat with her bid for president during the 2008 Democratic primaries. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first female vice-presidential candidate. There were no major party female candidates for president or vice president this year.
That’s not to say female politicians aren’t gaining ground. With Tuesday’s election, there are more women in Congress than ever before. However, they make up just 19 percent of that body although they account for 51 percent of the U.S. population. In 2012, women held only 23 percent of all elected executive offices at the state level according to the Center for American Women in Politics.
Experts say factors that keep women from high-level political careers include a lack of female role models, an undue focus on looks and appearance, and double standards that male candidates don’t often face.
Christina Bejarano, assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas, said the lack of female role models in politics limits women’s confidence in their ability to win an elected office. Lacking confidence may be a self-inflicted obstacle, but a fair share of qualified women in politics—including Kansas’ former governor and current Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius—face barriers their male colleagues typically never have to face. These barriers, as Clinton said in her 2008 concession speech, are “often unconscious.”
“Research shows that you need at least 25 percent of the critical mass to have any impact on the culture of an organization,” said Diana Carlin, associate professor of communications at St. Louis University and co-author of Gender and the American Presidency: Nine Presidential Women and the Barriers They Faced. “When you put all the qualified women candidates together and start seeing the patterns, you realize it’s not situational. It’s something bigger than that.”
Carlin says one reason fewer women run for political offices is because of the negative attention the media sheds on female candidates. “All the talk about clothing and appearance detracts the media time and attention from the job, the politics, the competence.”
Men have to decide which color tie to wear for the debate; women, however, don’t have a uniform for the pulpit, and having more options opens more doors for scrutiny. In her first debate campaigning for governor, Sebelius, who ran against a male Republican, was mentioned in an Associated Press article as insurance commissioner — along with a description of her sandals and nail polish. Coverage on her male opponent, however, consisted of job titles and biographies, sans-outfit depictions.
Associate professor of communications at Penn State University and Carlin’s co-author Nichola Gutgold said women are also at a disadvantage when comparing credentials with their male colleagues. “Men with very skimpy résumés—maybe first-term senators—are considered presidential material. But for women we expect more. It’s because we’ve never had a woman, and the public and press constantly look for reasons to disqualify her.”
Gutgold says many people have a hard time imagining a woman as Commander in Chief. “Our country is skewed so heavily masculine that even if a man as president has no military experience, we imagine he’ll make the right decisions regarding sending a country to war,” Gutgold said. “But we treat women differently. We say she won’t be tough enough to send our troops to war or make decisions regarding the military. It’s a double standard.”
Aside from the presidential obstacles female candidates face, family—or lack of one—influences the number of women in the political pipeline as well. Every male Supreme Court justice, for example, has a family; yet two of the three female justices are single with no children, and the third waited to begin her judicial career after her child was almost grown. Additionally, Condoleezza Rice was the first and only female national-security adviser, and the only national-security adviser since the 1950s not to have a family.
It may be the challenge of the balancing act that keeps women from pursuing higher office. But the public’s negative perception of a mother campaigning instead of tending to her children is another double standard men don’t face. “She’s judged for the quality of her parenthood more than men are,” Gutgold said. “Either she can have no children so there’s nothing to judge her on, or they have to be well beyond their formative years and have turned out pretty well. We never wonder where [vice presidential candidate] Paul Ryan is, who has young children. We never say, ‘Shouldn’t be he be tucking his children into bed instead of debating?’”
Kansas’ Insurance Commissioner Sandy Praeger said she has never experienced discrimination while in office, including her time as mayor of Lawrence and as a Kansas senator. She noted that many other women had previously held the positions she sought, but she still thinks women are often too intimidated to get involved, and the obstacles to higher positions such as president or vice president keep them from having other female political role models.
“What is probably a determinant more than anything else is the mean-spiritedness, the viciousness, and the political environment today,” Praeger said. “I don’t know why men or women in this current political environment would even want to get involved.”
Still, both Praeger and author Carlin believe that a woman’s sensibility could contribute in political discourse.
“Women tend to be more consensus builders,” Praeger said. “Their leadership style is more about compromising and letting others take credit. And gosh knows we need consensus building in this country right now, where not many people are wanting to find common ground.”
And Sebelius, having been a Democratic governor in a bright red state, certainly had experience with finding middle ground: During her tenure as governor, a number of legislators and an attorney general candidate switched from the Republican party, and her running mate Mark Parkinson, a former member of the Kansas House and Senate and past chair of the Kansas Republican Party, joined her Democratic ticket in 2006.
Perhaps women possess sensibilities that would be of practical use in office. Although a much more likely possibility, and the crying mantra of feminism, would be Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s theory: “A wise old man and a wise old woman reach the same conclusion.”