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Where Are All of the Women Politicians?

Where Are All of the Women Politicians?

Photo by Speaker Pelosi, Creative Commons

GOOD | Andrew Belonsky

June 17, 2010

Women are more visible in the political realm than ever before: Sarah Palin, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton have all made it to the top of their profession. To a casual observer, it may seem as though American women are breaking the proverbial glass ceiling. They’re not.

Despite our status as the world’s premier democracy, the United States ranks 74th in the world when it comes to female lawmakers, behind Venezuela (71), Austria (27), and Angola (10). Sure, other nations have quota systems to help women in the political ranks, but the United States, with all its ideals, shouldn’t need such things.

Perhaps sexism’s to blame, and family and child rearing is an obvious social barrier. Women remain the primary caregivers and can find it difficult to balance children with a career, not to mention a campaign staff. But familial obligations aside, plenty of women simply don’t feel competent enough for public office.

“A man and a woman can have the same exact resume, but a woman won’t feel like she has the qualifications to run for office,” says Andrea Steele, whose organization, Emerge America, trains Democratic women how to run for office. “This is an idea that we have to go out and debunk.” Women focus on the qualifications they lack, and those prerequisites include an iron stomach.

“A lot of women find the mechanics of politics daunting and distasteful,” says Steele. “They say, ‘I have to fundraise? They’re going to probe into my personal life?’ The whole arena is off-putting.” Erin Vilarde from the nonpartisan White House Project also used the word “arena,” telling me, “When politics become partisan, uncivil, it turns women off. It doesn’t look like an arena where you can get something done.” Other times women just don’t feel wanted in political expeditions.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women are more likely to go into office after being recruited. “Most women state representatives ran for their first elective office because of encouragement, which echoes the findings of recent studies of candidates and potential candidates,” write the researchers in their report, “Poised to Run.” San Francisco School Board member Rachel Norton told me that she ran because a friend suggested it, and New Mexico State Representative Karen Gianni said the same thing. Even after being asked, however, sometimes women want a helping hand.

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