Professor John Zumbrunnen
Dec. 15, 2016
Female Underrepresentation in Government Jeopardizes Political Equality
Political equality means that regardless of economic or social inequality present in the society, all people still have equal access to government and equal representation. Currently in the United States, women are not receiving political equality due to their unequal representation in Congress. According to research data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2011, the US ranks 78th worldwide in female political representation. The U.S. population is 51 percent female, yet their representation in U.S. Congress is only 16.6 percent. These statistics clearly show that women are not equally represented in government, which is clearly a violation of political equality. The “boys’ club” mentality of the government, low female candidacy, and low support for female candidates create a gap in the political equality the US government claims to provide for its citizens. m
Perception of women as less able and less worthy to govern in the United States is deeply rooted in the history, culture, media, and mindsets of the population. History shows few powerful women and countless powerful men. The media objectifies women, reinforcing the idea that women are useful only for the pleasure of men, not for their intellectual value or contribution to society. This creates popular culture, which continues to reinforce the objectification and negative stereotypes through music, television, and advertisements. Women are not seen as human beings, women are bodies, property, to be used and owned not valued or respected. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, he focuses not only on the blatant white privilege present in America, but also the privilege of the white man. In Coates’ words; “Hate gives identity. The nigger, the fag, the bitch illuminate the border, illuminate what we ostensibly are not, illuminate the Dream of being white, of being a Man. We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe” (). The underrepresentation of women and minorities in government gives evidence to this quote. These groups are viewed as less worthy of power by the American public, which is why they are not elected at nearly the same rate as white men.
Oftentimes, people who want to minimize the issue of gender inequality in government blame female underrepresentation on females themselves. Excuses like “women aren’t in office because they don’t want to be” are simply false. Women are not in office because society as a whole discourages them from striving towards positions of power, not only in politics but also in other male-dominated fields. A 2012 American University study highlighted seven main reasons women are not running for office at the same rate as men:
1. “Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.
2. Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin's candidacies aggravated women's perceptions of gender bias in the electoral arena.
3. Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.
4. Female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.
5. Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.
6. Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office — from anyone.
7. Women are still responsible for the majority of child care and household tasks.” (NPR)
The United States has done little to change how women are perceived in this country, and how women perceive themselves. According to Cynthia Terrell, chair of FairVote’s “Representation 2020” project, “at the current glacial rate of progress, ‘women won’t achieve fair representation for nearly 500 years’” (Hill).
Psychological reasons are not the only thing keeping women out of office. The system is also created in a way that inhibits female election. The first of these is the advantage of incumbent candidates. The majority of legislators are currently male, and the majority of incumbents are reelected, therefore males are elected much more often. The second is redistricting. Although it cannot be proved that redistricting is done with the intention to disadvantage females, the reality that it does this cannot be ignored. For example, in North Carolina, “10 of 25 Democratic women lawmakers were either forced into a district with another incumbent, or redrawn into a primarily Republican district” (Flock). Women also receive noticeably less media coverage than males, making it more difficult for them to have enough publicity to be elected. The culture and systems present in the United States makes candidacy and election drastically more challenging for females than males, therefore preventing political equality for women.
Overcoming these barriers and helping more women get into political office, especially high positions, is not only important for upholding political equality in the United States, but is also shown by various studies to be incredibly beneficial to the country as a whole. Female legislators are overall more progressive on various policy issues, including “the environment, macroeconomic management, comprehensive support for families and individuals, violence prevention, and incarceration” (Hill). Female legislators also introduce and pass more legislature than their male counterparts according to various studies. Research also shows a correlation between women in leadership and an improved economy. According to a study done by Columbia professor Katherine Phillips, in ethnically diverse countries like the United States, women in top leadership positions result in a 6.8 percent increase in the GDP when compared to countries with male leadership. Based on this research, having more female leadership is important not only to create political equality for women, but also to improve the country as a whole.
Women are not going to gain political equality through equal representation in government without the help of legislation. The first way to increase female participation in politics is through proportional representation. Proportional representation is an electoral system in which parties gain seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for them, a system which allows minor parties to be elected in higher numbers than the current district representation system allows. More women are candidates for minor parties, so this would create more opportunity for them to be elected. Legislation that requires equal female candidacy could also be introduced within party lines. This legislation, called “positive quotas” in other countries, requires by law that 50 percent of candidates to be female. Multi-member districts could also be introduced because studies show that women are elected at higher rates than the more common single-seat districts. These policies must be enacted to fulfill the promise of the United States of political equality for all people, not just men.
The founding document of the United States, the Declaration of Independence, ensures political equality for all people in the country. Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration explores this idea. Without political equality, social and economic equality cannot be achieved. With this lens in mind, the second line of the Declaration is arguably the most relevant:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The beginning of this sentence is clear, all men are created equal, meaning not equal in “size, power, wealth or even ability… what we share is a status” (172). This status is given in the next lines: the “unalienable” right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As summarized by Allen, this means that simply by being humans, “we have been furnished with our powers of mind, spirit, and body in order that we may live, be free, and pursue happiness through politics” (173). This right recognizes the innate human capacity for politics, and gives the right of consensual government to all, regardless of race, gender, or religion. In this way, the text explicitly states support for equality among humankind. The current status of women in politics in America is in direct violation of the Declaration of Independence and the foundational values of the country.
Currently, there are a few organizations fighting for women’s participation in elected office. One of the most influential is EMILY’s list, which aims to get pro-choice democratic females elected by raising funds for their campaigns. The PIW (Political Institute for Women) offers training classes for women planning to run for office. The GIP (Girls in Politics Initiative) was founded by the same woman, Kimberly Mitchem-Rasmussen, and introduces girls aged 8-17 to politics in the United States and globally. The NOW (National Organization for Women), sponsors a PAC, which provides funds female candidates campaigns. The Barbara Lee Foundation, according to their website “change the dialogue about women candidates in the media; showcase powerful historical examples of women’s leadership and empowerment; and mobilize women voters across political parties through innovative online and grassroots campaigns.” Despite these various programs trying to improve female candidacy and election rates, little change has occurred. This shows that the government needs to get involved in this issue to give women fair opportunities and therefore political equality.
In a country as modernized as the United States, political equality should be guaranteed to all citizens. Currently, women are not receiving it because they are not offered the same opportunities to be elected as their male counterparts. This is in direct violation with the foundational values of the country, and is the antithesis of proper democracy. Solving this issue will not only create political equality, but based on multiple studies will also support diversity and economic growth. Women are not underrepresented in government due to their own desires or flaws, but because of the corrupt nature of their environments and government systems. Change must occur to preserve political equality, but this issue cannot be fixed without effort and policy that supports female candidacy and election. Wanting change is not enacting change, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Good intention” is a hall pass through history” ().
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