Why Does the US Still Have So Few Women in Office?

  • submit to reddit
Harvard Law professor and consumer advocate, Democrat Elizabeth Warren talks with supporters at the J & M Diner in Framingham, Mass. September 2011. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)
Elizabeth Warren, center, talks with supporters in Framingham, Mass. in 2011 during her first day of campaigning for a US Senate seat, which she went on to win by beating incumbent Scott Brown in 2012. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)

This post originally appeared in The Nation.

With Hillary Clinton the early front-runner in the 2016 Democratic primary, the United States may join the UK, Germany, Brazil and Argentina as democracies that have had a woman as their top leader. Yet the alarming reality is that American women are still vastly underrepresented in elected offices all across the nation. Remember the “Year of the Woman” in 1992? Two decades later women still hold less than 20 percent of congressional seats, despite composing a majority of the US population.

And compared to other nations, the United States is losing ground. America now ranks 98th in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature, down from 59th in 1998. That’s embarrassing: just behind Kenya and Indonesia, and barely ahead of the United Arab Emirates. Only five governors are women, including just one Democrat, and 24 states have never had a female governor. The percentage of women holding statewide and state legislative offices is less than 25 percent, barely higher than in 1993. Locally, only 12 of our 100 largest cities have female mayors.

The reality is that at the current glacial rate of progress, “women won’t achieve fair representation for nearly 500 years,” says Cynthia Terrell, chair of FairVote’s “Representation 2020” project, which has released a new study on women’s representation.

But the US can’t wait that long. Having more women in office not only upholds democratic values of “fairness” and “representative government,” but various studies have also shown that the presence of more women in legislatures makes a significant difference in terms of the policy that gets passed. In Patterns of Democracy, former American Political Science Association president Arend Lijphart found strong correlations between more women legislators and more progressive policy on issues like the environment, macroeconomic management, comprehensive support for families and individuals, violence prevention and incarceration. Other studies have found that women legislators — both Republican and Democrat — introduce a lot more bills than men in the areas of civil rights and liberties, education, health, labor and more.

Globally, research has shown that ethnically diverse and divided nations that elect women rather than men to key national leadership offices end up with better economic performance. Columbia professor Katherine Phillips and her co-researchers found that for the most ethnically diverse nations, having a woman in the top national leadership position was correlated with a 6.8 percent greater increase in GDP growth in comparison to nations with a male leader. The authors attribute that to women leaders having a more participatory, democratic style than men, and more confidence from voters at managing difficult situations that require more inclusionary or cooperative approaches.

So electing more women is a national as well as a global imperative. But how can this be accomplished? We’ve already seen decades of heroic efforts by organizations like EMILY’s List and Feminist Majority to recruit, train and fund more women candidates, as well as efforts by the Name It. Change It. campaign to combat gender stereotypes in politics and in the media.

The National Organization for Women (NOW) and other women’s political organizations fought in the 1970s and 80s against the Democrats’ old boy network for nomination of more women candidates, as well as equal representation in party committees and structures, eventually succeeding in creating more internal female leadership (which can be a steppingstone to public office). To an extent, these cumulative endeavors have paid off: representation in Congress has increased from 34 women (six percent) before the 1992 election to a total of 102 (19 percent) in the House and Senate today (out of 535 seats).

But the continuing, vast representation gap shows that those efforts are not enough. It’s time for a change in tactics.

A look at nations that are more successful at achieving gender parity among elected officials provide some guidance about what would transform the political landscape. Leaders in electing women include Sweden (45 percent female representation at the national level), Finland (42.5 percent), Denmark and the Netherlands (39 percent) and Germany (36.5 percent). Most of their political parties prioritize recruitment of female candidates, some even requiring “positive quotas” where half their candidates are women. And their societies have sensible policies in areas like childcare that make it easier for legislators to balance their service with their families.

But the research of representation experts like the late Professor Wilma Rule has shown that, in addition to these positive quotas, the biggest reason for female candidates’ success in these advanced democracies is the use of “fair representation” electoral systems, also known as proportional representation.

These methods use multi-seat districts, rather than one-seat districts, where political parties (or, in a nonpartisan election, groupings of like-minded voters, i.e. liberals, conservatives, progressives) win seats in proportion to their vote share. If like-minded voters have 20 percent of the vote in a 10-seat district, its candidates win two of ten seats, instead of none; 40 percent wins four seats, and 60 percent wins six seats.

Such rules create multi-party democracy, since a political party can earn a fair share of representation with well under 50 percent of the vote. That in turn fosters greater accountability for major parties, as minor parties offer voters other viable choices. Facing real competition, major parties look to nominate candidates that broaden their appeal, including a lot more women. The German Green Party has never won over 11 percent of the national vote, yet for three decades has consistently won seats and promoted women’s leadership by having a 50-50 rule for female/male candidates, prodding other major parties to nominate more women.

How important is the electoral system to women’s success? A real-world test is provided by nations that use both fair representation electoral systems and US-style one-seat districts to elect their national legislatures. We can observe the same voters, the same attitudes, expressing themselves through two different electoral methods. The result? In Germany and New Zealand, women win a lot more seats chosen by the fair representation method than in those chosen in one-seat districts — twice as many seats in Germany.

American women also do better in multi-seat districts, even if proportional representation rules aren’t used. As FairVote’s report shows, women hold an average of 31 percent of state legislative seats elected in multi-seat districts, compared to only 23 percent elected in one-seat districts. Vermont’s state legislature has 41 percent women, elected in districts with anywhere from one to six legislators per district. Even a strongly conservative state like Arizona has 36 percent women in its state house, elected from two-seat districts.

The US Constitution does not require the use of single-seat districts, so switching to these fairer election methods only needs changes in applicable laws. It wasn’t until 1967 that Congress passed a law mandating single-seat districts for House races, but that federal law could be changed again by Congress; state legislatures and local governments could adopt such methods by changing state and local laws. Advocates will find allies among those seeking to enhance minority voting rights (particularly in light of recent horrible Supreme Court rulings) and to correct today’s shocking geographic skew toward Republicans (which allowed Mitt Romney to beat Barack Obama in more House districts (226-209) even though he lost the national popular vote by four percentage points). Public financing of campaigns also would help, since most women don’t have access to the good ol’ boy networks that primarily fund political campaigns.

Given the research and real-world experience on what impacts women’s representation, why don’t organizations like EMILY’s List, NOW and Feminist Majority focus more on enacting fair representation methods and other structural changes? “EMILY’s List was founded to work within the electoral system we have — and we’re proud of our successes in helping to elect a historic number of Democratic women to office,” Jess McIntosh, communications director at EMILY’s List, told me. “Our progress hasn’t been easy, and we’re nowhere near done — but there is clearly a mandate for women’s leadership in this country and we’re going to keep fighting.”

Kathy Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority and also executive editor for Ms. magazine, acknowledges that these structural issues are of paramount importance. But she says the power of incumbency and the old boys network is strong and very resistant to structural change. “The feminist movement has been fighting this battle for equal representation for over 40 years,” she says. “But you’re talking about changing the very rules that keep incumbents secure in their seats. We need more Democratic and Republican leaders to step up and help solve this problem.”

Spillar thinks voters increasingly see women as effective legislators, taking the lead in forging cross-partisan consensus on issues like the fiscal cliff and debt limit. But the male-dominated networks, even among Democrats, stand in the way of changes like requiring that 50 percent of candidates be female, or using fairer voting methods. “We’re pushing on a lot of fronts, and structural change is one of them. But we need more allies, and it’s a matter of picking your battles and figuring out where you can have an impact.”

McIntosh is enthusiastic about women’s chances of picking up a few more Senate seats in 2014, and cites EMILY’s List’s work training 1,000 female candidates for state legislative races. Training a thousand women candidates is indeed a great accomplishment, but that achievement also reveals the limitations of current approaches. The fact is there are more than 7,300 state legislative races, and over 6,000 will be contested in 2014. So the reach of EMILY’s List’s efforts only impacts 17 percent of state legislative races. Without structural change, the current heroic efforts by women’s groups seem doomed to always fall short.

As Representation 2020 chair Cynthia Terrell argues, “We should ask for nothing less than parity in representation, and push to achieve that goal in one generation, not half a millennium.” It’s time to get serious about addressing why 51 percent of the population has less than a fifth of the representation in Washington, DC. The future of the nation is at stake.

Steven Hill
Steven Hill is the author of 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: A More Perfect Union and Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age. He is the former director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation.
  • submit to reddit
  • NotARedneck

    Women never did like seeing sausage being made.

  • Lois Herr

    Structural change through affirmative action is what created opportunities for women in business. Changing behavior is much easier than changing attitudes, though changed behavior leads to changes in attitude.

  • JonThomas

    Women, bananas, little green things with monkey faces… doesn’t matter who is in office, as long as the two party system is in place, it will continue to be more of the same.

    Let’s give women the benefit of the doubt… Perhaps, women don’t wish to be beholden to the limited forces which fund elections in this country.

    Many of the Nations which do see women taking leadership roles are marked by 2 differences from the current power structure in this country, and which the 2 parties here have fought against… Proportional Representation, and strict controls on campaigns and funding, including allowing Government subsidies to political parties.

    Just try getting in a debate if you step outside the 2 party system. Even the Tea Party has chosen to align with Republicans. Bernie Sanders is sadly considering the Democrats (although, one might hope Sanders can change them, odds are though…. nope)

    In other words… in places where a broader field of opinion is encouraged and supported – more voices, including women’s, are heard.

    Either way, no more Neo-crats like the Clintons.