Despite what some people want you to believe, women are not fairly represented in public office. In fact, the US ranks 82nd worldwide in the percentage of women in our legislature. I can't say it more plainly than this: the gains women are making are simply not enough.
Women hold 86, or 16.1%, of the 535 seats in the 110th US Congress. These seats are 16 of the 100 seats in the Senate and 70 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. These numbers do not demonstrate equity — they scream of disparity. In state government, 76 women hold 24.1% of the 315 available positions. Among these women, 45 are Democrats, 28 are Republicans, and 3 were elected in nonpartisan races. For women of color, the situation is worse in statewide politics, where they comprise only 4.7% of the total 7,382 state legislators.
Sixteen percent. Twenty-four percent. Four point seven percent.
We all know, and have known for a long time, that women are not adequately represented in the world of politics. But given that during this election cycle there is a high profile female candidate for President, we might be lulled into thinking that things are improving steadily.
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I urge you to stop and consider those numbers. Actually, I encourage outrage at those numbers. The marginal improvements in women's representation are not sufficient. If women are not participating in political life, how can we expect women's interests to be adequately represented in our local, state and national politics? The issues at stake are about equality and reproductive rights, yes. But they are also about poverty, race, children, health care, schools, and the environment. They are issues as varied and complex as the portion of the population they pertain to.
Jennifer Lawless, a professor of political science at Brown University, has researched this problem. She writes,
I've identified three basic barriers women face: family roles, what it means to be a "qualified" candidate and recruitment efforts… We must think creatively about how to integrate family with politics, as well as be cognizant of the double bind that even highly successful, professional women face. We must identify and condemn the kind of sexist behavior that leads women to feel that they must be twice as good to get half as far in the political sphere. But perhaps most easily, realistically, and concretely, we must recruit more women to run for office.
Women win elections at the same rate as men. Yet they simply don't run for office as frequently. Today, though, I offer a bit of encouragement. In the face of these dismal statistics, She Should Run, a project of the Women's Campaign Forum, is taking names. That is, they are taking nominations to encourage pro-choice women, leaders in their communities, to run for elected office.
[T]he She Should Run campaign [is] a comprehensive effort to gather nominations of 1,000 pro-choice women who should run for public office. We are committed to ensuring these women get the essential encouragement they need and to providing them access to key campaign education and resources.
What we need from you are the nominations. Maybe your child's teacher has some excellent ideas about education reform. Maybe your aunt is a tireless community activist. Maybe your lawyer has talked about running for office but never taken the leap. Research shows these women are much more likely to run if someone asks them to.
Ilana Goldman, President of the Women's Campaign Forum, explained the rationale to me. "Women tend to run when asked," she noted. "Especially when they are encouraged by someone close to them, a trusted source. This project is creating a mechanism for more women to get that ask."
The project is not simply about getting women nominated to run, but will also support them throughout the process by offering trainings, educational support, local resources, and state party contacts. Goldman says that they women that of the 875 women that have been nominated thus far, "they have, on average, 20 years of experience and are deeply ingrained in their communities." Given that "women often think they need to have certain professional and skill boxes checked off before getting involved in politics," She Should Run encourages women to harness the skills they already have and acquire the support they need in order to run a successful campaign.
This project is a few months old, and just shy of their goal to get 1000 women nominated. Projects like this one will likely be a critical part of raising women's participation in public life. Such grassroots efforts, focused on the local efforts of women who are committed to improving their communities and ensuring that our laws and policies work for us, are exactly what we should advocate. Beyond tearing down the gender disparity and depressing statistics I mentioned earlier, and instead of supporting the wealthiest and most connected political hopefuls, this kind of organizing brings people with experience, expertise and passion to the forefront. It's great for women, and a perfect example of democracy at work.