Where Are All of the Women Politicians?
Photo by Speaker Pelosi, Creative Commons
GOOD | Andrew Belonsky
June 16, 2010
Women-centric groups like Vilarde’s help women reframe the debate: “We make an assessment of a woman’s relationship with money, lessons she learned as a child. We do role playing exercises where she makes an ask.” Of course money’s hardly the only hurdle women face when launching a campaign, and training groups tackle all the stock subjects.
Naturally family comes up. “The issue of family, kids, is big on the campaign trail,” explains Vilarde. Just look at all the questions surrounding Elena Kagan, and the stink over Sarah Palin’s ubiquitous brood. Women, unlike men, are asked to explain where, how, and why their children do or don’t exist. Apart from family, though, there’s another F-word female lawmakers routinely face: fashion.
Apart from Representative Charlie Rangel’s bowties, not many male lawmakers fuel sartorial stories the same way that Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton have. “Women dress professionally in campaign ads, which suggests they need to prove themselves,” points out CAWP’s Kira Sanbonmatsu. Rarely do you see a woman with rolled up sleeves, her top button undone, walking down Main Street, as male candidates are wont to do. A woman needs to appear competent for the public, and her political party.
When asked what female candidates can anticipate on the trail, Vilarde says, “Be prepared for your political party to not be as excited about you as they are about even a less qualified man.” Sanbonmatsu from CAWP contends that state parties “haven’t necessarily thought of women as candidates, although it varies from state-to-state.”
She and her peers report that more female than male state lawmakers — 15% over 8% in state Senates, and 24% over 15% in the Houses — claim they got into politics after being asked by a party official, rather than to fulfill of a life-long dream. Public office is not just a job. It’s a vehicle — a means to an end.
“Women run for office to make a change, to impact legislation. They run for an issue or cause,” says Candy Straight, founder of the WISH List. Lisa Witter from the progressive consulting group Fenton Communications, agrees: “For women, politics is not a power platform. Women come to get the things done.” This may help explain female politician’s legislative styles.
Various studies indicate that women are more effective and efficient lawmakers than men. Stanford and Chicago University researchers jointly found that women introduce and pass more bills and send more money to their constituents. Female politicians also appear to introduce more community-oriented bills, like Representative Carolyn McCarthy’s ongoing mission to end corporal punishment once and for all.
There are a variety of hypotheses to explain these trends. “Women have more hands-on experience from everyday living,” says Sue Lynch, executive director of the National Federation of Republican Women. “That allows us to speak from the heart in a way that I don’t see in men.”