“I am going to be the first Muslim woman president.” “I am going to be the first Black woman senator from my state.” “I am going to make Congress 50 percent women.” My heart raced with excitement as I heard these declarations of ambition during the June iGNiTE Women Run Conference. Never before had I been in a room with so many women unabashedly asserting their political aspirations. This year more women are running for political positions than ever before and polls show that most of the country is comfortable with female politicians. A Pew Research Center Poll found that 75 percent of Americans said women and men make “equally good political leaders.” But this national excitement for women candidates is not reflected in the representation numbers.
There are only 4 women Governors. America’s large city governments are comprised of only 25 percent women. And on the federal level 19.4 percent of the House and 21 percent of the Senate is made up of women. The reason we see this tragic underrepresentation, is not because of women’s lack of ambition and it’s not because people vote against women due to their gender. This unbudging underrepresentation exists because women are systematically excluded from politics. The institution of American Politics was created by men and for men and it is stacked against women with ingrained barriers that I hope to expose in this blog.
1) Institutional misogyny starts young.
During the iGNiTE conference the moderator asked the women in the room to stand if they thought “women don’t run for office because they feel like they are not qualified enough.” The entire room quickly stood. This same pattern is seen in the workplace. A study found that women are significantly less likely to apply for a job unless they feel 100 percent qualified, meanwhile men will apply even if they only feel 60 percent qualified.
Why? Blaming this phenomena on a woman’s lack of confidence fails to consider the larger explicit and implicit societal forces that tell women they are not smart, competitive, or talented enough to hold power. The truth is, no one can ever be fully qualified for the unpredictable challenges of a politician, but that doesn’t stop men from running. We need to encourage women from a young age that they deserve to be leaders. But that is not what is happening.
The Center for American Progress interviewed woman candidates, officeholders, and staff members across the country and found that 51 percent of these women said they “had never been encouraged by party leaders to run for higher office.” Many even spoke of experiencing subtle dissuasion such as “party officials telling women not to mount primary challenges to incumbents in their own party.” The lack of encouragement to enter politics and the socio-psychological barriers to believing in their own qualifications keep women away from placing their names on ballots.
2) The power of sexist criticism
While polls may show that the American public is ready to support women candidates, the way women are talked about makes political engagement a hostile environment for women. Alice H. Wu analyzed over one million conversations on economic hiring websites. She found that the 20 words most uniquely associated with discussions of women applicants were (in order): hotter, lesbian, bb, sexism, tits, anal, marrying, feminazi, slut, hot, vagina, boobs, pregnant, pregnancy, cute, marry, levy, gorgeous, horny, and crush. While men were talked about using words more related to economics such as: adviser, Austrian, mathematician, pricing, textbook, goals, greatest, and Nobel. This is the same climate women are entering when they seek ambitious political positions.
The sexualization of women and the discomfort America has with ambitious women leads to high criticism of female candidates. Women on the campaign trail are constantly criticized for the clothes they wear, the sound of their voice, and are interrogated on their qualifications. Unlike men, women candidates are frequently asked about their children. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said “When I ran for the first time often I was asked, ‘well, what are you going to do with your kids?’” Women have to demonstrate that they are good mothers, appear attractive and likeable, and over-prove their qualifications to be deemed viable candidates. Women candidates have to work hard to achieve the status of viability that men are automatically granted.
3) Going against the establishment
Cycles of power and influence are hard to break. In 2016 men made up 81 percent of the incumbent members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Incumbents and party insiders have a much easier path to power. In many states candidates are recruited and supported by networks of “gatekeepers” (party leaders and big donors). These gatekeepers have a large influence over which candidates appear viable and visible, and states with more entrenched gatekeeper networks, like Pennsylvania, have consistently less female representation.
Running for office is a very expensive endeavor; in 2012 the victor of a house seat spent an of average $1.6 million. Big donors place their bets carefully and tend to not give to candidates who they find “unviable.” When viability is determined by older, particularly white men, women and women of color especially have to work harder to be treated as serious candidates.
The increasing importance of having these large funds early-on in campaigns places disproportionate barriers on women, especially women of color, who tend to have less access to large financial resources and establishment political networks.
Structural solutions to structural problems
As women’s names fill ballots this election season, it is clear that women are ambitious and qualified. Efforts to support women and POC candidates are helping level the playing field, but changes must be enacted to our political institution. The media and political endorsements must evaluate woman candidates on the same measurements as male candidates. Voting must be made easier and more accessible to everyone. And we have to enact legislation to reduce the influence of money in elections. The more women are elected, the more America will recognize women’s political fortitude, and the stronger our country will be.