Yesterday, the Huffington Post published a thorough and interesting article about the state of women in the US Senate and the disparity between the Republican and Democratic Parties in tapping female candidates. The whole thing is worth a read, especially the slideshow at the end featuring the thirteen women running for Senate next year. But I was hoping we could start a discussion of our smart, engaged readership here at Persephone about the section discussing the challenges of persuading women to run for higher office.
The HuffPo piece talks a lot about the threats to women’s rights in the current political climate and how the dearth of women in power contributes to that. Toward the end, it goes on to say:
One reason few women are elected to higher office is that few of them run. “It’s very very difficult to make large gains if women are only competing in about a third of the races,” said Lawless, of the Women and Politics Institute. “And so until we really see more women running for office, it’s very, very difficult to see increases in the percentage of women holding office.”
The problem is twofold. Women are much less likely than men to decide on their own to run for office without first being approached with the idea by someone else.* Women in politics face the same scrutiny as working mothers and women without children, with the added component that running for higher office often entails spending a considerable amount of time in Washington, DC, or the State Capitol once you get there. All of the internal debate and eyebrow raising from strangers (sometimes family members) about mothers working long hours in the office away from their children is magnified significantly with time on the campaign trail, followed by days, weeks, or months away from home. It’s less of a problem – although still a significant time commitment – if you’re running for a City Council or a County Legislature seat based locally, but if you’re spending time in a capital hundreds or even thousands of miles away from your children, you need a spouse who is willing and able to pick up a lot of slack. Meanwhile, the average woman in a two-parent, heterosexual family is still far more likely to take on the majority of household related duties than her husband.
And honestly, there is a very public kind of discussion over this when women run for higher office that men don’t face. Surely men who hold public office also leave their small children with their spouses for long stretches of time, but it’s a family decision that most voters don’t talk about, or honestly even think much about. When I worked for Bossman, he was in the State Capitol three to five days a week for six months at a stretch, every single year since his sons were toddlers. No one batted an eye. No one even thought to bring it up! And yet it’s a topic of public speculation for a woman in the same position. Remember the talk about Sarah Palin’s children at home when she ran on the Presidential ticket a few years ago. New Yorkers might recall a heated discussion of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s very young children when she was appointed to the seat in 2008. Family status is considered fair game for women in public office in a way that it’s just not for men.
Not to mention the decision not to have children, which I know we’ve discussed extensively here on Persephone. If a woman doesn’t have children (or God forbid, isn’t married), this very private decision or medical issue becomes a point of public consumption. Women who have grown children often escape the same kind of scrutiny, but if you wait to run for public office, you’re putting your own aspirations on hold for eighteen or more years, not to mention the lack of experience that becomes a drawback.
Running for office is a hard decision to make, but it’s much more difficult for women, which is how we end up with fewer women in office in the first place.
*Those of you who are Parks and Recreation fans will be entertained to know that there really are organizations out there with the primary goal of recruiting women to run for public office. The Center for American Women and Politics has something called the 2012 Project, She Should Run is a nonprofit dedicated to providing infrastructure and support to women running for higher office, and the YWCA offers public leadership training courses for women interested in seeking public office or working in politics behind the scenes, among other opportunities.
Image courtesy NBC.