Women in Politics: Too Much Is Not Enough
by Kelly Nuxoll (Woodhull Alumna)
Hillary Clinton’s near-win this Democratic primary would seem to signal progress for women. She not only proved to be a formidable opponent, but habituated the public to the sound of a woman’s voice delivering policy prescriptions, the appearance of a woman’s body behind a presidential podium, and the association of a woman’s face with the title of commander-in-chief. When I saw Clinton for the first time in Iowa, I was unexpectedly moved by the sight of a female candidate waving to a crowd of cheering caucus-goers; by the time I saw her for the last time at her concession speech in Washington, DC, the image of a woman running for president was old hat.
However, Clinton’s high-profile run may mask the challenges that women continue to face. In her new book, “Rumors of Our Progress Have Been Greatly Exaggerated,” Clinton’s fellow Congresswoman from New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney points out that women are disproportionately underpaid, underinsured, and underserved by the legal system. (The Equal Rights Amendment, which protects against gender discrimination, still has not been ratified.)
The issue is partly one of representation. Less than 20% of members of Congress are women—and of those, less than a quarter are women of color. Only one in four people in statewide elected office is a woman. Notably, this year we have the highest number of female governors in history: three Republicans and five Democrats. I’d like to be excited about this fact—but eight governors out of fifty states? Indeed, rumors of our progress have been greatly exaggerated.
The other, more pervasive issue is one of women’s value. Rep. Maloney said she was inspired to write her book after attending a New Hampshire rally for Clinton where hecklers held up signs saying, “Iron my shirt, Hillary” and “Hillary, make me a sandwich.” As evidenced by our social standing, what women offer—to their families, the economy, and society—remains suspect. Women are not paid for childcare or housekeeping, although they continue to do the bulk of it in households across the United States. Partly because their family responsibilities require more flexible schedules, they often work in service or support capacities, roles that traditionally don’t command the respect or salaries of leadership positions. This trend is true even in ostensibly high-level fields. In a survey of presidential campaigns at the start of the election season, a fellow researcher and I found that although women were reasonably represented on campaign staffs, most were in the fundraising department. These women earned a lot of money and played important roles in keeping the campaigns afloat; however, they did not have power to influence the campaigns’ policies, messaging, or strategies, and therefore were not in a position to make real change.
As much as I have enjoyed seeing more women on the campaign trail this year—in the audiences, on the stage, and as talking heads in front of the cameras—I have a lurking suspicion that the improvements we’re seeing are largely cosmetic. Just because there are more women at the table doesn’t mean they have a voice.
It does seem, however, that critical mass is an important first step. In a study of women in Fortunate 500 companies, the research firm Catalyst found that the best predictor of how much influence women would have was how many other women were on the board. The lesson here seems to be that if we want to make political change, one woman, or even a couple, is not enough. To create a real difference, we need to pour into public office and make ourselves at home there.