Throughout her career as a television news anchor and executive, Mary Alice Williams always had a passion for politics, and three years ago she decided to explore a run for elective office. After enrolling in The White House Project’s training program, Go Run, Williams began to plan a Congressional race.
But her enthusiasm fizzled after she met with political officials in New Jersey. “It’s a boys’ club,” says Williams, who lives in Montclair. “Women are not allowed.”
Instead of entering politics, she became a college professor who now teaches at SUNY-Purchase and Seton Hall University. According to political experts, such outcomes are all too common; the number of women in office has stalled in recent years despite efforts to encourage and prepare them.
“Women are 51 percent of the population, but we have flatlined at 17 percent in Congress, with 17 women in the Senate, six women governors, and 23 percent of state legislators around the country,” says Tracey Hyams, director of Political Parity, a non-partisan coalition of leaders who have joined forces to increase the number of women in office.
In the last election cycle, frustration turned to alarm as women’s representation actually lost ground. “There was a net loss of 81 legislative seats for women,” reports Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. “It was the first time we’ve gone down in 30 years.”
Fed up with the stubborn lack of progress, activists are now launching new initiatives that include a ten-year campaign by Political Parity, announced today in Washington, to double the number of women in Congress and governorships.
Such efforts aim to capitalize on the unusual opportunities of 2012, in which a presidential election year coincides with redistricting that will eliminate many incumbencies and enhance the prospects for new contenders.
With approval ratings for current political office-holders reaching historic lows—in recent polls, nearly 90 percent of Americans disapprove of the job that Congress is doing—experts also cite a growing body of research documenting the superior performance of women in office.
“Women across the political spectrum are more likely to prioritize issues affecting women, families and children than their male counterparts in either party, and women are more likely to reach across the table and work collaboratively on issues than men,” Hyams reports. “Women sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than men, and they are 31 percent more effective at advancing legislation. Congresswoman also deliver 9 percent more federal dollars per year to their home districts than do men. And women rank higher than men in key policy-making areas, including working out compromises, keeping government honest, standing up for what they believe in, and representing constituents’ interests. In an era when trust in American government is at an all-time low, the public places greater trust in women than it does in men.”
Such research data helps to bolster a strong factual case for electing more women to public office, but significant barriers remain. “When women run, women win, but we have not had enough women running,” says Walsh.
One reason is their disproportionate share of family responsibility, with many women functioning as breadwinners while still performing most of the caretaking and domestic duties at home. “Women lead complicated lives, so they tend to run when they’re older, and therefore they have a shorter trajectory in politics than their male colleagues,” Walsh explains.
Campaign financing represents another barrier. “As money becomes a bigger force in American politics, women feel it’s harder for them to raise the money,” Walsh says. “Women come from professions that are not as connected to money networks; they’re more likely to come from teaching or nursing or social work than law or business.”
There is also a confidence gap between the genders. “Research shows that among equally qualified men and women, men say, ‘Yes, I’d make a great Senator!’ while women say, ‘No, I couldn’t do that job,’” Hyams reports.
As Mary Alice Williams discovered, male bias may be an additional factor.“This is still a world that’s run by men, and they’re not particularly welcoming of newcomers into the process,” Walsh observes. “Party leadership tends to be male and white, and they are grooming people who look like them to take on leadership roles.”
Entrenched political establishments sometimes fear that women could put pressure on traditional, often secretive ways of doing business. “Women bring an interest in transparency and openness in government, and there may be a reluctance toward doing that,” says Walsh. “Power is not something that’s given up easily.”
Women are also put off by what they see as unfair, gender-based criticism inflicted on females when they do run. “They’re afraid of how they’ll be treated,” says Hyams. “The media treatment of women candidates tends to focus more on appearance, family status and other unrelated issues, rather than on competence, qualifications and stands on issues, and this is perceived as sexist and misogynistic.”
New initiatives are now tackling such barriers in hopes of smoothing the way for more women. The Center for American Women in Politics is sponsoring the 2012 Project, a non-partisan national campaign to encourage women to run in 2012, as well as Ready to Run, a program that trains women to run.
The Women’s Campaign Fund, which has a program called She Should Run, has also joined forces with the Women’s Media Center to sponsor Name It, Change It, which is aimed at ending sexist and misogynistic treatment of women candidates and politicians in the media.
Another venture is Vision 2020, a national equality initiative developed by the Drexel University College of Medicine. Its goals include achieving pay equity, mobilizing women’s vote and increasing the number of women in leadership positions by 2020, the centennial anniversary of women’s right to vote.
“I think the big news is that all of us are working together now and getting all the women who work on all these issues in different organizations collaborating, so we can have a collective impact,” says Lynn Yeakel, co-chair of Vision 2020 and a former Pennsylvania Senatorial candidate. “There are lots of wonderful women’s organizations that have been working on complementary programs, and Vision 2020 seeks to connect them and build a much larger network to reach the goal, so we’re not all reinventing the wheel. There’s a whole new spirit now.”
Such efforts have reenergized a movement that seemed, until recently, to be dispirited. “I’m very optimistic that we will make progress over the next ten years,” says Hyams. “Tiffany Dufu, the head of The White House Project, always says that if you want something you’ve never had before, you have to do something you’ve never done before. We’ve brought together an unprecedented coalition of women who may agree on nothing else other than the need to elect more women, and I’m confident that together we will be able to change the face of politics.”
Inspired by a national hunger for fresh leadership as well as the programs now being created to foster political opportunities for women, potential candidates are reevaluating their prospects. “Would I again consider running for office? Sure,” says Mary Alice Williams. “The issues Congress has to resolve are much bigger than the barriers to getting there.”