Why do you think the majority of American politicians continue to be men? Discuss the various mechanisms that you think can explain some of the obstacles to women being political leaders in the United States and elsewhere.
The Gender of Governance
More women hold political office than ever before. Across the world, the percentage of women in legislatures—bodies elected to represent their constituents in regulating the affairs of the country—ranges from 0 to 50 percent. Table 13.2 shows the rise in the number of female politicians over time. The countries most inclusive of women are those with highly egalitarian approaches to gender (such as the Scandinavian countries) and states where wars have politics left many men dead and discredited their leadership (as in Rwanda and Sierra Leone). In these types of countries, women represent about 40 percent of members of legislatures.
The United States has not been a global leader in this regard. As of 2013, the U.S. Congress was about 18 percent female. Internationally, this level of representation is the middle of the pack. Still, the rapid rise of women in American politics is remarkable; of all the women who have ever been elected to Congress in its 224year history, a third (98 of 293) are holding seats at the time we are writing this book. Thirty of these are women of color.
As of 2014, no woman has yet been elected president of the United States, but the idea no longer seems as unnatural as it once did. The percent of Americans who say they are willing to vote for a “qualified woman” for president has grown substantially since 1958, when 55 percent of people said they would. Today 90 percent or more would support a female candidate, at least in theory. Female heads of state are nothing new, though. The first woman to lead a modern country was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, who was elected in 1960. Since then, more than fifty women have led their countries. These leaders have been found disproportionately in Europe, but every region on earth has seen at least one female leader.
These gains have come through two complementary mechanisms. First, women fought to be recognized. Second, men had to change how they thought about women as well, and decide that including them was the right thing to do. It took both men and women, then, and both voters and candidates, to change the face of government.
Women’s presence in politics disrupts all three types of inequality: the classic patriarchal rule that women cannot hold power (sexism), the modified patriarchal belief that power is inherently masculine (androcentrism), and men’s prerogative to make decisions on behalf of women (subordination). But does it make a difference? In other words, does symbolic representation—women’s presence in government—translate into substantive representation—policies important and helpful to women?
SYMBOLIC TO SUBSTANTIVE REPRESENTATION
Some people think it does. In 1991 an African American law professor, Anita Hill, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that she had been sexually harassed by a nominee to the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas. This was a scandalous accusation, then even more than now. The public was transfixed. What they saw was an allwhite, allmale panel of fourteen senators deliver an “aggressive, glovesoff” attack on Hill’s character. Many women saw this as a sign that men did not understand women’s experiences. They brought their frustration to the ballot box. The increased numbers of female candidates elected that year persuaded the media to define it “Year of the Woman.”
More recently, in the 2012 election Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill of Missouri was considered a likely loser. The race turned in her favor when her opponent, Republican Todd Akin, argued against allowing abortion in the case of rape. “Legitimate rape,” he said, couldn’t lead to conception because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” The suggestion that women who became pregnant after an assault were not “legitimately” raped, not to mention general dismay at his biological illiteracy, caused an outcry. McCaskill won in a veritable landslide.
Both these stories suggest that at least some voters believe that female politicians are good for women. Is this how it works? Yes and no.
On many issues—such as the economy, religion, and the highly partisan issue of abortion—gender makes little difference. Diversity among women means that there are many ways in which they are different from one another. Moreover, both men and women belong to political parties with concrete policy agendas. Once you take party membership into account, male and female politicians tend to vote similarly on legislation they are asked to consider.
That said, female politicians do tend to vote differently than men on issues that obviously affect female constituents. They show strong support for social welfare, women’s health, and familyfriendly workplaces, and for reducing inequality of all kinds. Moreover, all things being equal, women are more likely than men to introduce bills that address women’s needs. So, sometimes men and women vote similarly, and sometimes differently, but having female politicians changes what they’re voting on. Many male politicians support the initiatives of female politicians, reminding us that it’s not just that women vote “like men.” Men also vote “like women” when they have the opportunity to do so.
Consider as an example the issue of men’s violence against women. Until at least the 1960s, domestic violence, sexual harassment, stalking, sexual assault, and rape went largely unregulated by the government. Sexual harassment was so normalized that there was literally no name for it. Violence between intimate partners was seen as part of men’s legitimate right to “govern” their own homes. And sexual assault and rape—especially when perpetrated by a friend or acquaintance—were often seen as just “boys being boys.” Between spouses, rape was impossible; husbands were legally allowed to force sex on unwilling wives.
Just as they had with suffrage, women started a movement; they raised money, recruited volunteers, opened domestic violence shelters, and staffed rape crisis lines. They redefined men’s violence against women as a crime, collected data to demonstrate its prevalence, and argued that state involvement was essential to protecting women’s freedom. This work outside of legislatures enabled female politicians to justify putting the issue on the public agenda. And they did, asking their governments to fund programs and pass laws intended to protect women’s safety.
Getting women elected is one step toward ensuring that politicians remember that women are part of the population they are governing. If women weren’t in legislatures, we would be less likely to see issues of importance to female constituents raised at all. When these issues are raised, the presence of female politicians improves the chances of them being addressed. Feminist activists on the outside of formal politics can use government commitments to equality to press for implementation and real change. Likewise, they can work to change public opinion in ways that help politicians on the inside, enabling further change. The bestcase scenario is cooperation between feminists on the inside with those on the outside.
Of course, all this assumes that it’s rather easy to know what’s best for women. In fact, we’ve yet to discuss what gender equality might actually look like. The truth is that even feminists don’t agree.
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