Achieving Gender Balance in US Politics

Bethesda, Maryland

My grandmothers were not born with the right to vote in the United States of America. My mother’s was the first generation of American women whose life commenced with the right to vote.

It was only 85 years ago that women won the hard-fought battle for suffrage. The federal amendment to the U.S. Constitution for women’s suffrage was not even introduced in the U.S. Congress until 1868. The amendment passed on August 26, 1920. Women fought the formal battle for suffrage for half a century. Women had to make a case to men for why they should have a right to vote.

Here’s what Susan B. Anthony said in 1872, upon being convicted of voting in the Presidential election: “I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, without having a lawful right to vote. It shall be my work this evening to prove that in thus voting, I committed no crime, but, simply exercised my citizen’s rights, guaranteed to me and all United States citizens by the Constitution, beyond the power of any state to deny.”

In reference to the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, Susan B. Anthony insisted, “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this democra! tic-republican government – the ballot.”

That evening, Anthony argued that in fact women were persons as defined by the Constitution and “entitled to vote and hold office.” She made a good case, but why should she have had to make a case for something that should have so obviously been every woman’s birthright as a U.S. citizen — the right to vote? It should have been obvious that women must be full participants in the decisions made by our government — the decisions that profoundly affected their lives.

It should be equally obvious today that women ought to be represented in elected office in proportion to their numbers in the population on the local, state and national levels — a concept that I call gender balance in politics.

Suffrage was not simply a movement to secure women’s right to vote. It was a movement to make women full participants in society, thereby transforming society. Achieving gender balance in politics is the logical extension of the suffrage movement — the fulfillment of the still unrealized dream of the suffrage movement. As path breaking feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft said in 1792, “Women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government”

Over two hundred years later women are still arbitrarily governed with little direct share in the deliberations of government because men make up 78% of state legislatures; 85% of the U.S. House of Representatives and 86% of the U.S. Senate and about 90% of Governors.


Women as Decision Makers

Without the achievement of gender balance in politics, women will be forever in the status of petitioner, not decision maker.

Until we achieve gender balance, women will have to petition men to implement and enforce laws and societal ethics against sexual harassment, instead of deciding, as members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that sexual harassment will not be rewarded with a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, as happened in the case of Clarence Thomas.

Unless we achieve gender balance, women will have to petition men to allow women access to emergency contraceptive pills — ordinary birth control pills taken in a higher than normal dose — without a prescription. Emergency contraception, also known as Plan B, is safe and can prevent fertilization, ovulation or implantation. It has an effectiveness rate of 75%- 89% if used within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, after contraceptive methods fail or in the case of rape. Over-the-counter availability is necessary partly because access to contraception in most states today is abysmal.!

Thirty two thousand women become pregnant each year because of rape or incest. Tragically, very few states in the United States mandate that emergency room treatment for victims include services related to emergency contraception. All women are entitled to easy access to emergency contraceptives; it’s basic health care. But we’re not going to get it by petitioning men, we tried recently and we lost.

If there were more women in the U.S. Congress, the Bush Administration would not dare to weaken the protections of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), as they have threatened to do. The Act guarantees “eligible employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave for a serious illness, to care for a seriously ill family member, or to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. Since 1993, more than 50 million people have taken job-protected leave, and, as a result, fewer people have had to choose between job and family,” according to the National Organization for Women.

Until women achieve gender balance, women will have to petition men to find a cure for breast cancer, the disease which takes the life of one American woman every twelve minutes.

Alice Paul submitted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to U.S. Congress in 1923. The first section of the ERA says: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The second and third sections of the ERA consist of one sentence each, saying that congress shall have the power to enforce the amendment and that it will take effect 2 years after ratification. That’s the entirety of the ERA. It’s only threatening to those who want to contr! ol and impede the progress of women.

It’s 2005 and the ERA is still not part of the U.S. Constitution. Unless women achieve gender balance in politics, we will have to petition men to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. We tried petitioning male-dominated state legislatures to ratify the ERA in the 1970’s and we lost. Women need to decide, as members of the U.S. Congress to revive the ERA and as members of state legislatures to ratify it in every state house across this country.

The number of women in elected office on the national level has not changed significantly in more than a quarter of a century. There were 20 women in the U.S. House in 1961 and there are 66 today. There are only 14 women in the U.S. Senate. The Center for American Women in Politics reports that, “Since the first Congress, 11,699 people have served in the House or Senate. Of these, 215 (less than 2%) have been women.” While the number of women on the state level is better, men still comprise almost 80 percent of state legislatures on the average.

History has proven repeatedly and definitively that if women want to achieve social, economic and political justice, by trying to influence men, we will not succeed. We must do so by achieving gender balance in politics.
How Gender Balance Will Change Politics

Why do religious political extremists control so much of our national public policy agenda? The answer is simple — progressives have provided no affirmative counterpart to the Christian Coalition and other powerful, reactionary groups. While there is sporadic reaction to the agenda of religious political extremists in America, progressives are simply not setting and implementing a pro-active pubic policy agenda. Unless progressives act quickly and forcefully it may soon be too late to regain control of American! politics.

The golden boy of the religious political extremists, Ralph Reed is now running for public office himself, but he left the Christian Coalition to start a firm whose focus “will be on building a farm team of state legislators, school board members and other local officeholders who, [Ralph Reed] believes hold the key to the future of our country.” (Washington Post, April 24, 1997)

Their ultimate goal is control – at all levels of government. But they’re starting at the local and state level because it’s easier to get into office without having their extremist views exposed. In Ralph Reed’s words, “I want to be invisible. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag. You don’t know until election night.”

Achieving gender balance in politics is one way to change our direction and revive a progressive agenda in America on a mass scale.

Women, regardless of party, are a major progressive force in politics. During the last two decades, there was a consistent gender gap on certain issues related to women, families and social wellñbeing. Such issues include: defense of the right to choose safe and legal abortion; environmental protection; support for child-care programs and the achievement of racial equality.

In a study called “How Women Legislate,” by Sue Thomas published by Oxford University Press in 1994, only 26 percent of women legislators agreed that abortion should be prohibited in almost all circumstances compared with 39 percent of male legislators. Seventy nine percent of women state legislators supported the Equal Rights Amendment compared with 61 percent of men.

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll taken during the 1996 presidential election, 54% of women thought that the main issues facing the nation were social problems such as education and poverty, versus 37% of men.

While all issues are women’s issues, until women are represented in politics in proportion to their percentage in the population, the political system will not adequately address issues of particular concern to women.


Study by the Center for American Women in Politics

The Center for the American Woman in Politics (CAWP) says, “When compared with men, women are: less militaristic…; more likely to favor measures to protect the environment and to check the growth of nuclear power; more often supportive of programs to help the economically disadvantaged [and] more often supportive of efforts to achieve racial equality…”

A more recent study by CAWP of the Democratic-controlled 103rd Congress and the Republican-controlled 104th said that, “Democratic and Republican women legislators of widely differing ideological views and representing markedly different constituents seek to promote legislation that they believe will serve women and are willing to cooperate across party lines to accomplish their legislative objectives for women.”

Across party lines, women share common interests. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said, “[W]omen from all over the country really do follow what you do and rely on you to speak for them on issues of women’s health care, reproductive choice, condition of families, domestic priorities, equal pay for equal work”

Deborah Pryce (R-OH) Ohio said, “I think women have to speak up for things that affect women, because men don’t; not out of malice, but because it’s just not of interest to them.”

Congresswoman Nancy Johnson (R-CT) said that regarding legislation she thinks, “How will this effect women who are at home taking care of children and who will need to re-enter the workforce later on? How does this affect women who did not go beyond high school because they thought only boys should go to college and now they’re stuck? I know a lot more about the shape of women’s lives and the patterns of women’s lives, so I need to look and see: How will the public policy affect those patterns?”

The differences women bring often strengthen the institution. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) said, “They elected me because I am an African American woman who has a certain set of life experiences that differentiate me from the typical male member of Congress [T]he institution isenhanced because of the difference I bring.”

The study was very clear and said, “Despite differences in party control, political climate and ideology between the 103rd and 104th congress, the presence of women made a difference in shaping the terms of the debate and in the public policy outcomes in both Congresses.”


Skirting the Issue

I once asked a progressive women’s community leader where she stood on the need for gender balance in politics. She said she was not interested in electing someone just because they “wore a skirt,” implying that flooding the political pipeline with women would result in the election of some right-wing women, a thorny issue.

Granted, in individual cases, we will sometimes find that the man is the better candidate on the issues. But generally, if we want to avoid electing right-wing women, we can work to elect only those who support the right to choose safe and legal abortion. Abortion rights is an issue that effectively separates progressive and moderate women from their right-wing counterparts. If we work to achieve gender balance in politics by electing pro-choice women, we would eliminate most of those women who align politically with the right wing.

Whether or not the abortion issue is used to separate out right-wing women, the CAWP study found that in the 103rd and 104th Congresses, “Most congresswomen, Democratic and Republican, believe they have an obligation to represent women.” There is little doubt that more women in elective office would lead to a national reordering of priorities and would likely thwart religious political extremist’s efforts to define politics of the 21st century in their terms.

It’s high time that women took their rightful place as leaders of this country defining and reordering our national priorities. It took suffragists many decades to discover the only successful model for women’s participation in the system ñ women doing it for themselves.


What’s the Problem?

A major obstacle to achieving gender balance in politics is that American women lack a sense of entitlement to political power, a baffling phenomenon. By contrast, I found when I went to Botswana in 1999 to train women to run for public office, that the women of that fledgling democracy were very serious about their claims to political power.

Trainings there contributed to 100% increase in the number of women in Parliament in a single election cycle from 9% in 1994 to 18% in 1999. These African women exceeded proportionately, the representation of women in the U.S. Senate in a much shorter timeframe ñ because they were determined to do so.

Even today in Iraq, women are demanding a greater role for women in politics. Twenty five percent of the seats in the new national Assembly were reserved for women and women took 31 percent of the seats. That’s about double the percentage of women in the either the U.S. House or Senate and Iraqi women are not satisfied. These kind of numbers would be a major advance for American women in politics when compared with our current role, but Leila Abdul Latif, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, said “31 percent doesn’t satisfy us when you consider than Iraqi women make up more than 50 percent of the population,” according to Agenc! e France-Presse.

It’s an attitude, a sense of entitlement to political power that simply does not exist among American women elected officials, women’s organizations, individual women and foundation funders. If American women got serious about achieving political power, they could do so on a dramatically shortened timeline.

Women’s organizations generally do not see it as a priority to support the election of more women to public office. The influence of the few groups like the National Women’s Political Caucus that train women to run for office, is marginal and fading. Instead of encouraging others, they like to stamp out new organizations that try to help. EMILY’s list, with its vast resources, hand selects a few women to promote to higher office instead of flooding the political gates with women at all levels of government.

Existing organizations are not impacting young women in large numbers. While lecturing at American University in Washington, DC in a class called “Women in Modern America,” I was surprised by women, about 20 years old saying that they had no idea that men dominated the decision-making positions in America. These young women said they had never been encouraged to consider a run for public office.

While there were some enlightened members of the class, others shared worn-out stereotypes that should have been long-ago eliminated about the physical weakness and emotional instability of women making them unfit for public office. Of the few young men in the class, their reaction ranged from open hostility to grudging acceptance of the idea of gender balance in politics.

We talked about how to reach young women on the issue. Participants thought that education had to start in elementary and middle school. Few of these young women had heard the stories of the struggles of the Suffragists or any of the early feminists that I highlighted in my lecture. In their experience, the history of women is still missing from the textbooks in early education — not under represented — but absent from our history books.


Moving Forward: Run Women Run

Some progress has been made, but advancement is happening at a glacial pace, even when compared to repressive countries like Iraq. I am unwilling to wait 333 years which is the time it has been estimated it will take to achieve gender balance if we continue at the current rate.

I am unwilling to wait that long for legislatures which favor environmental protection, support programs to guarantee quality health care and fulfill the dream of the civil rights movement. Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman in Congress and to run for U.S. President, envisioned a world led by women and she said, “It is women who can bring empathy, tolerance, insight, patience and persistence to government…The women of a nation mold its morals…and its politics by the lives they live. At present our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.”

That was a long time ago. Women need to make-up some lost ground. There is much work to do toward achieving gender balance in politics and reviving a progressive agenda in America. So, if you’ve ever looked at a politician and thought, “I could do that and I could do it better”, then run for public office. Follow the example of Victoria Woodhull, who ran for president in 1872 and said, “While others argued the equality of men with women, I proved it…I boldly entered the arena.”

When women get elected they change the status quo. The San Jose City Council had a majority of women on the council and a woman mayor. They became the first city council in America to negotiate a comparable worth settlement to rectify the historical pattern of lower pay for women.

When you run for public office, you will need a simple, compelling message which is easily communicated. Your message defines your campaign and tells people why they should vote for you. When you feel as though you can never repeat your message again, voters will be hearing it for the first time.

Running an effective campaign involves identifying your voters and communicating your message through grassroots voter contact and the media in order to mobilize people to vote for you. Nothing can replace direct contact with voters at their doors and on the phones. Be prepared to ask everyone you know, and many people you don’t know to contribute money to your campaign. Ask people to give as much as they are capable of giving within the limits of the law.

Proving that campaigning is not always serious business, In 1992, a Pennsylvania Democrat flippantly remarked that all U.S. Senate candidate Lynn Yeakel had going for her was that she “had breasts”. This generated a media frenzy. In response, Senate hopeful Claire Sargent of Arizona suggested that “It’s about time we voted for senators with breasts. After all, we’ve been voting for boobs long enough.”

KARYN STRICKLER is a writer and political activist. You can reach her at