Women and Political Participation

Does it bother anyone else that it has been 16 years since the “Year of the Woman” and women are still vastly underrepresented in government? The United States’ record for female political participation is only 16% overall compared to over a third in countries like Sweden. As of May, 31 2007:

Nordic countries – 41.6%

Americas – 20.0%

Europe (excluding Nordic countries) – 17.7%

Sub-Saharan Africa – 17.4%

Asia – 16.4%

Pacific – 12.4%

Arab states – 9.6%

The U.S. ranked 63rd world wide with only 15.2% women in the House and 14% women in the Senate.

As of July 2007, there are only 10 female Heads of State out of 189 governments.

In the U.S., there have been only 29 women to hold the office of governor from 1925 to the present with only eight presently doing so.

This year we’ve had two strong women running for the highest political offices: President and Vice President. But neither of them made it. Is this a reflection of their politics or their gender? Or simply the result of campaigns that weren’t as good as the victors’? And will the fact that they didn’t win discourage other women from running for political office?

I don’t think so. This election was historic not only because of Obama being elected President, but also because of the high visibility of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. They might not have won, but they attracted a lot of voters to their causes. It would be interesting to know how many were turned off by the fact that they were women. The figure is probably not as high as it once would have been.

If we don’t see a surge of women becoming involved in high-stakes politics, I think it will have more to do with the way women are socialized. We’re taught to not fight dirty, to remain silent and in the background. And being in politics requires a tremendous amount of time and energy, making it doubly difficult for a wife and/or mother to run for office. Because we all know that holding down a full-time job doesn’t release a women from the duties of her household. (Unless she’s well-off enough to hire people to do “her” work around the house and for the family. Or has an unusually cooperative and helpful husband.)

It’s worth analyzing what drives women who get into politics. How do they overcome the resistance of the old-boy network that has run things forever? How and from whom do they get their support? But most of all, what makes them able to go against the socialization process? It may be that this is a whole new world from the one I grew up in. Today’s women aren’t as socialized into thinking that they have limits because they’re women. But if that’s the case, why aren’t more of them going into politics? Perhaps after this election, they will.