Despite the challenges that female politicians have facedthroughout history, many have preserved and paved the way for generations ofwomen after them to increase women’s representation in government. The firstwoman to run for federal office in the United States was women’s suffrageactivist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In her state of New York she won onlytwenty-four of the twelve thousand votes cast.
In 1916, the first woman electedto the House of Representatives was Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana.As of 2017, three states, Delaware, Mississippi, and Vermont, have never beenrepresented by a woman in Congress. Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic representativefrom California, was the first and only woman to serve as Speaker of the Housefrom 2007 to 2011. Therefore, Pelosi is the highest ranking woman in UnitedStates political history, as the Speaker of the House is third in the line ofPresidential succession. Although each of these women have made valuablecontributions towards the fight to increase women’s participation in politics,women are still severely under-represented in the modern American politicalculture. As of 2017, the number of women serving in the United StatesLegislative Branch is not proportionate to the number of women currently livingin the country.
There are one hundred and five women serving in Congress,meaning that women make up 19.6% of the five hundred and thirty-five electedSenators and Representatives in Congress. Currently, eighty-four women serve inthe House of Representatives, while only twenty-one serve in the Senate.
Whilewomen make up over half of the total population of the United States, they arestill less likely to be politically active than men, and many politicalscientists have theorized about the cause of this in order to find a way tocorrect this disproportion. One theory as to why women are under-represented in UnitedStates politics is that women are not given the same level of encouragement topursue a political career as men. In2008, Jennifer Lawless, the director of American University’s Women andPolitics Institute, conducted a study that examined the differences inpolitical recruitment between men and women with similar income, politicalinterest, age, level of education, and career status. The results of this studyshowed that women are less likely than men to be encouraged to run for office. However,Lawless also stated that encouragement from the parents “has the potential tobe a great equalizer.” A potential candidate’s willingness to run for politicaloffice may stem from his or her childhood experiences, therefore the importanceof political participation must be emphasized for children of both genders duringthe most essential developmental stages of life.
In another 2011 study by Lawless, female candidates wereproven to be less confident in themselves and in their campaigns than theirmale counterparts. In this study, men and women with equal qualifications inthe fields of law, business, education, and politics were surveyed, as theseare the occupations that produce the highest numbers of elected officials. Theresults of this survey showed that 62% of male participants had consideredrunning for office, while only 45% of female participants said the same. Thisevidence supports the statement that women are statistically more likely tobelieve that when they run for office, they will not perform as well at thepolls as men. A woman’s willingness to run for political office often stemsfrom her own self-perception, and therefore women are less likely to undertakethe challenge that is running for a political office.
Womenmay also be less politically active because of wealth gaps between men andwomen and the high costs of a political career. Personal wealth is a major contributing factortowards a candidate’s recruitment, campaigning, and success once elected. Themedian wealth for single women ages 18-64 was only 49% of the median wealth formales of the same age range.
Political scientists Michael Barber and DanielButler conducted a survey on campaign finance as a result of the widespreadbelief that raising money on political campaigns is more difficult for womenthan for men. The results of this study showed that men do in fact raise moremoney than women do with regards to campaign contributions and individualdonors. The results alsoshowed that men donate more money to male candidates. However, Barber and Butler also notedthat the perception that it is more difficult to find a woman’s campaign may beimpacting women’s underrepresentation more than the inequality in the fundingitself.
Traditionalfamilial roles are yet another factor that can limit women on the campaigntrail. In 2007, the Women and Politics Instituted of American Universityconducted a study that showed that women are twelve times more likely to beresponsible for household duties and childcare than men in homes with two workingadults. During the 2008 Republican campaign for president, many questions aroseabout how the vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin would care for her fivechildren, one being a newborn with down syndrome, while on the campaign trail.These questions often swayed both the media and voters’ confidence in herability to be successful in motherhood and in the vice presidencysimultaneously. Christiana Henry de Tessa, an Oregon voter who supportedSenator Barack Obama in 2008 election told TheNew York Times, “You can juggle a BlackBerry and a breast pump in a lot ofjobs, but not in the vice presidency.” Anothervariable that affects many women who run for office is their lack of the advantageof incumbency. Being an incumbent provides an immeasurable advantage toofficeholder when they are up for re-election.
Political gatekeepers such asparty leaders, donors, and important advocacy groups are responsible forrecruiting candidates, inciting support and funds for their campaign, andconvincing outside groups to fund their campaigns. Surviving the difficultundemocratic “primaries” conducted by these gatekeepers is especially difficultfor non-incumbents. This is because the majority of these candidates havetrouble accomplishing the networking that is necessary to bring in the numberof private donations they need to persuade political gatekeepers that theircampaigns are worth the investment of time and capital. However, even once acandidate has survived the screening of the political gatekeepers, unseating anincumbent is extremely difficult. In 2016, 97% of the incumbents in the Houseof Representatives who ran for re-election won. Of these elected incumbents,81% were male.
This pattern of re-election of incumbents typically holds trueat the federal, state, and local levels of elected office in the United StatesMCD1 . Breaking these patterns is essential to ensuringthat elected officials are best representing their current constituents and arefocusing on the most relevant issues in the United States today. Althougha woman’s path to political office is often difficult, the importance ofwomen’s contributions to our government is emphasized by those women who havebeen successful in politics. Many female politicians work to prioritize women’sissues in Congress, and they show determination to keep these issues on theCongressional agenda.
Often, female representatives view it as their duty torepresent the interests of other demographics that have not been equallyrepresented in Congress, including the poor, immigrants, and people of color.Women also bring a new perspective to Congressional decisions because of theirlife experiences that often contrast those of their male colleagues. Althoughsome women in Congress feel that they must work harder than their malecounterparts to be taken seriously and to prove that they deserve their spot inCongress, these women are persistent in their efforts to spread the belief thatwomen’s issues should be taken seriously by all members of Congress whorepresent constituents of both genders. As Representative Jackie Walorski said,”If you can come through that and you have proven yourself to people thatbelieve in you, if you have proven that you are the best person to fight forthem, I think that’s the key.” Though the glass ceiling of our politicalculture remains an obstacle for women who wish to pursue a political career,the cracks that women throughout history have made in this barrier have pavedthe way for women in the future to work to increase the representation of womenin the United States government.