During an interview last week, a reporter with one of the top international media outlets mentioned to me that 2008 was being referred to as the “year of the woman.” Well, I told her, we already had our Year of the Woman back in 1992—spurred on by the televised testimony of Anita Hill being savaged day after day regarding allegations of sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Hill’s painfully public ordeal moved women to action, helping to propel a record-breaking number of women onto the federal ticket, electing the largest number of women ever to the House, and tripling the number of women elected to the Senate.
So it surprised me to hear that 2008 was being heralded as a similar milestone for women’s political leadership. Not only because the gains for women this year were minute, but because the bestowing of such a title in 1992 ended up doing relatively little for women overall. Yes, we made historic headway towards greater gender parity – but everything went south after that. Once term limits kicked in, the open seats were overwhelmingly filled by men, even those previously occupied by women. Since then, the percentage of women serving in state legislatures has hovered between 21 and 24%, and this election cycle, in 10 states, the total number of women serving actually went down.
Frankly, when I hear the current exclamations over women’s electoral gains in 2008, I am shocked at the apparently low expectations for where women should be politically. In this so-called “Year of the Woman, v. 2.0,” only four seats were netted by women in Congress – three in the House and one in the Senate. Unless a woman is appointed to fill Senator Clinton’s seat, we will backslide to the same 16% of women-held Senate seats that we started with before the election. At the moment, we’ve got a mere 8 women serving as governors across this country–likely to become 9 when Lt. Gov. Diane Denish replaces Governor Bill Richardson as he moves to Commerce, but still well below parity. (And governorships are important to men and women alike: as the traditional platform to the presidency, they are a critical proving ground, where executive experience can be validated.)
At the beginning of the twentieth century, suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton remarked that it was a wonder that the republic had done as well as it had when it’d only used half its resources. A century later, her words still ring true. In the upcoming research report “Benchmarking Women’s Leadership” by The White House Project, it is revealed that at our current rate of advancement, we won’t achieve parity between women and men in Congress in 2063. This means we will continue to use half our resources for another half century. Call in the waste management experts.
With pressure from women’s groups, other countries have moved far ahead of the US in terms of women’s political representation by establishing quotas, either around the numbers of women candidates or office holders. Parliamentary systems make this easier to do than in our winner take all electoral system, but there are a myriad of innovations that could move our democracy to a place of true representation; all we need is the political will to make such programs a priority.
I’ve spoken before about how a Presidential Commission on Women & Democracy could make deep inroads into achieving gender parity in government – no country can accomplish such a task without a big show of political will from the very top. And a commission is a good structure for this type of innovation, as it makes recommendations without becoming a parking lot for urgently needed policy changes.
That’s the high-level piece of work that needs to happen in order to bring more women into the political process. But there are other ways each of us can make a tangible difference—starting right now.
After you read this piece, think of a woman you believe would make a great addition to the city council, school board, or state legislature. Then pick up the phone, dial her number, and encourage her to run. Or send her a personal e-card inviting her to run. When I speak with female elected officials, the majority of them say that the one thing that spurred them to run was the encouragement of a friend, family member, or co-worker to do so. It was certainly the case when I ran for city council in Des Moines years ago.
Men see other men in places of leadership, and they step up to the plate to either join or unseat them. But women, who see too few of their counterparts in positions of political power, wait to be invited. It won’t always be that way. And if enough people make the call, we can help hurry history.