On the evening of November 8th, 2016, Hillary Clinton conceded to Donald Trump, ending her campaign for the office of President of the United States. Millions of women looked on as Clinton made strides toward gender equality, instilling the hope that there soon might be a female President of the United States. Conversations about feminism in the United States were stirring, stimulated by a variety of celebrities and public figures in the preceding few years. Singer Beyoncé Knowles made her famous statement at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, plastering the word “feminist” behind her as she sang “Flawless,” a song featuring samples from the work of Nigerian writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Activist Gloria Steinem, one year later, released her memoir My Life on the Road, an account of her experiences alongside the second-wave feminist movement – her first book in ten years. A variety of celebrities branded themselves “feminists,” in interviews and on-screen appearances, launching the term into the vernacular. If so many people are discussing feminism, are we getting closer to gender equality? It depends where you look.
Let’s take a look at Congress. Does the gender breakdown in Congress reflect the population? The numerical breakdown of the 114th Congress referenced here was done by Reid Wilson, a political and Congressional correspondent for The Washington Post. Wilson’s breakdown shows that 19.4% of the members of the House of Representatives are female, and 20% of the Senate members are female. According to the US Census of 2010, 50.8% of the US population is female – so it’s fair to say that Congress is not representative. Approximately 80% of Congress is male, while men in the 2010 US Census made up only 49.2% of the population.
This breakdown is not normal. “In Nordic countries like Finland and Sweden, women make up just over 40 percent of the legislature. And even the Canadian legislature is 26 percent female — compared with 19.4 percent here” So why, then, are there not more women in the Congress of the United States? In an investigation for Vox, reporters Sarah Kliff and Soo Oh looked at the breakdown of men and women in Congress, and analyzed the trends they found. I’ll summarize some of their work here.
The United States ranked 52nd in the world for women’s representation in government in 1997. But in 2016, the country has dropped to 97th globally. As Wilson’s breakdown shows, fewer than one in five members in Congress are women, while women of color make up an even smaller percentage.
Earlier this year, Oh created a map of congressional representation by women in the United States over time. She discovered that three US states, Vermont, Mississippi, and Delaware, had never elected a woman to Congress. In other states, a majority of the districts had never elected a woman – citing New Jersey, Oklahoma, Indiana, and others as examples. When she broke down the statistics by Senate and House, she discovered that “Iowa and Alaska have also never had any women in the House. And 22 states total haven’t had a woman senator.”
The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan Washington D.C. based organization that studies public opinion on press and policy in the United States. In 2014, they conducted a study of over 3,000 Americans. Only 2% of that group, 112 adults, claimed that they at some point had run for political office. Of that 2%, 1 in 4 were women, while 3 in 4 were men.
Are women averse to running for office? Kristin Kanthak, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh, asked the same question in 2014. She conducted an experiment to find out if something about the political process hinders women from running for office. She compared the aversion to running for office to asking for a raise: “If women aren’t willing to ask for raises, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re not willing to ask for votes.”
Jennifer Lawless, a Professor of Political Science at American University, has focused on this issue for most of her career. Kliff & Oh’s investigation reports on Lawless’ research, citing that “women” of equal credentials “consistently underestimated their qualifications and perceived themselves differently than the men in the group.” Only 22% of the women in the study done by Lawless saw themselves as qualified to run for public office, compared to 35% of men. The study continued to ask questions about the perception the women and men had of themselves. 66% of women considered themselves confident, compared to 73% of men. 64% of women considered themselves competitive, compared to 74% of men. Women fell behind in other categories as well, including whether they considered themselves risk-taking, thick-skinned, or entrepreneurial.
The participants were asked whether they agreed with a variety of statements. When asked if they agreed that women win elections as often as similarly situated men, only 47% percent of women agreed, while 58% of men agreed. Do you agree that congressional elections in your district are highly competitive? Women agreed at 62% while men only at 50%. Women not only run for office less; they also perceive biases against themselves. Lawless sought to uncover whether they were encouraged to run at the same rate as equally qualified men. Women fell behind men in every category when asked about whether they’d been encouraged to run for office by party officials, elected officials, political activists, political actors, spouses, and family members.
The conversations about feminism that have emerged in recent years encourage women to run for office, and to take their share of government and corporate control from the hands of “the patriarchy” – the 80-90% of men who are in the top leadership positions across industries in the US. However, the studies analyzed have shown that it is not as easy to take that control back as it may seem. Our outdated gender lines are difficult to redraw. When men are the primary source of leadership pipeline, possibly because of the way men are nurtured by others to take roles and run for office, men will remain on top. The unequal Congressional and corporate representation of women has long-term cyclical and psychological effects which enforce the gender paradigm itself. Monkey see, monkey do.
Christina Wolbrecht, a Political Scientist at the University of Notre Dame, reinforces this claim. In her research, she has found that “where female candidates are visible due to viable campaigns for high-profile offices girls report increased anticipated political involvement.” The breaking and shifting of the paradigm actually alters the psychological perception that women have of their place in society.
The solution that nearly every political scientist analyzing gender representation has found is that more women need to run for office. The sole way to break down the fact that only one in five of our Congressional representatives is a woman is by ensuring that in every election cycle, part of the 14% of available seating (shout out to incumbency) is filled by women.
To overcome the barriers outlined above, some countries have actually assigned a quota to the number of women who need to be in political office each year. Kliff and Oh explain that in 1971 Sweden had 14% female legislators. The country assigned a quota the next year, that 40% of legislators should be female, and today Sweden’s government is 45% female. Recently, Sweden’s government outlined a proposal wherein corporate boards would have a gender quota of 40% women by 2019. The proposal was killed by opposition parties, but is nonetheless an important piece of progress.
Kliff and Oh created a map outlining the countries which have either reserved seats for women, created gender quotas, or have voluntary political party quotas.
Nearly all of Europe, Africa, and South America are represented, as well as Australia, Mexico, China, and Canada. Is the United States behind on gender policy in politics? It appears it may be. Kliff and Oh conclude that “increasing gender representation in Congress doesn’t require passing laws or spending money — two of the biggest obstacles to doing anything in Washington right now. Instead, it only requires a commitment to an idea that there is value in a more representative government.”
This is a commitment that the United States has yet to make.
With the increasing number of vocal “celebrity feminists” and growing amount of feminist lingo ( #girlboss) being transmitted around American society, one would think that gender equality is on the horizon. The United States had its first high-profile female presidential candidate in years, and though she lost the election, she won the popular vote by more than two million votes. It seems the American people are comfortable electing a woman to the nation’s highest office, just as they were comfortable electing a black man to the Presidency in 2008, and again in 2012. The American people are comfortable with female representation. Why isn’t the government?
The representation of women in Congress and other political offices is a choice that needs to be made by the government itself. In the same way that Sweden began their efforts nearly 50 years ago, the United States needs to begin their efforts. The United States has just elected Donald Trump to be the President of the United States for the next four years, a man who has used derogatory language to describe women with no negative repercussions, so it is imperative that the rest of the government chooses gender representation as an issue it cares about. Lawless calls for a “jolt” to the system, emphasizing that “if parties are not thinking about women as obvious candidates, then you can’t expect to see much change.” If there is not government mandated progress towards gender representation over the next four years, there will be no change to the paradigm.
Feminism is more than the lens through which these issues are viewed. It is the solution to those issues. The way to increase female representation in Congress is by educating both men and women on the gender gap and encouraging the mandate of gender quotas in national government. When women recognize, and are recognized for the role they can play, their perception of their worth increases and the cycle can be broken. When men recognize women as full equals, the cycle can be broken. Hillary Rodham Clinton wasn’t the first woman to attempt to break that cycle through a campaign supporting and valuing women and young girls, but she absolutely must not be the last. The Congressional gender gap needs to be closed before America can consider itself a great country. In the words of the popular new American musical, Hamilton, let’s “include women in the sequel.”