Even Before Election Day, Women Can Count Some Wins
November is upon us. The bloggers are blogging earnestly, the spinners are spinning madly, decision day is looming.
Amid all the high-stakes focus and fulmination over this vote serving as a Bush administration performance review, something else important is happening, something historic.
The 134 women running for House seats in the general election is just shy of the record 141 who ran in 2004. Twelve women have won their party's nomination for the Senate, beating a record set in 1992 and tied in 2002. Ten women are running for governor, matching a record set in 1994. Rutgers University's Center for American Women in Politics counts a record 2,431 women running for state legislative seats.
That is clearly good news for those who believe that a louder, stronger female voice is good for women and good for government.
Sometimes, though, good news is delivered in smaller packages.
I recently saw that CosmoGirl! magazine -- where you might go to find "10 ways to get him to notice you" -- has launched a project (call it a promotion if you're cynical) to put one of their readers in the White House by 2024.
It includes internships in places such as the United Nations Association and the office of New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney.
It caught my attention for two reasons. One, a magazine that makes its living understanding young women believes that politics sells magazines. Two, they believe their young female audience would see running for president as a logical thing to do.
And that is important. Even with the record and near record numbers of women running in mid-term races, we still have a long way to go.
15 Percent of Congress
Women make up half the U.S. population and more than half the voters, but represent just 15 percent of Congress. The world parliamentary average is over 16 percent. For a country that bills itself as the world's model of democracy and equality, that's shabby. Many developing countries boast far better numbers.
Former Rep. Pat Schroeder once called the White House the "the ultimate tree house with a 'No Girls Allowed' sign on it." There are currently a record 13 women running countries as presidents or prime ministers. In the United States, we are still running polls to test the idea of a female president.
Not all of the under-representation can be blamed on not being allowed in the tree house.
Women now hold about half of all professional and managerial positions in business. You can argue about how fast they've risen to the very top, but there is no argument about the numbers pouring through the door. Why aren't we seeing that same rush to politics?
It appears that there are co-dependent answers: Many capable, experienced women don't feel they are qualified for a political race, and they don't get the support and encouragement to think otherwise.
A 2005 Brown University-Union College Citizen Political Ambition Study gave us the first broad national study of why people run for office. The study and a subsequent book, "It Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don't Run for Office," were written by Richard L. Fox and Jennifer Lawless, who recently lost a tough congressional primary race in Rhode Island.
Women Wonder: Am I Qualified?
They found that even among those who excelled in other areas, women were twice as likely as men to say they were not qualified to run for office. Women in the study were significantly less likely to think they would win their first race. They also found that women received less encouragement to run; 37 percent of women versus 43 percent of men received a suggestion to run from someone in the political arena or their personal lives.
We also can't discount the fact that politics is an exceedingly tough -- often enthusiastically mean -- business. That is particularly true when you are on the outside trying to break in; even more so when you are young, female and underfunded.
A number of studies have shown that voters in the '70s and '80s believed women had more humane stands on issues of public policy. It was called "the compassionate advantage." Male candidates, not wanting to appear to be beating up on a woman, tended not to go negative on personal issues.
As we see in the current campaign season, the rules of the game have changed. Personal attacks on women are not only fair game, the Web offers more subtle ways to deliver them. Female candidates can and will be attacked on everything from their experience to their toughness to their wardrobe. In this age of studious public correctness, the attacks can be coded.
Ken Mehlman, chairperson of the Republican National Committee, said recently on ABC television that Hillary Clinton "seems to have a lot of anger." (Read: emotional and prone to mood swings.)
While Senator Clinton mulls her future, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, appears to be the convenient target of opportunity. As McClatchey Newspapers' Margaret Talev recently wrote, she can stand in as "the face of a tax-raising, homosexual-embracing, abortion-promoting, war-fearing, criminal-coddling, government-expanding liberal party." She can be packaged for liberal-phobic voters as, in the words of a recent New York Post op-ed headline, "Nancy the Nutcase," as in silly, emotional and impractical. Not at all like a man.
Seasoned female politicians -- those with the well-tempered steeliness of a Pelosi -- understand that it's all part of the game. They happily return fire. Younger female candidates, lighter on experience and ammunition, may not. At least until they see more women in the game, and winning.
To keep the female pipeline flowing and winning we have to continually make the case -- one female candidate at a time if necessary -- that women belong in political races and offices. If they need to be invited, cajoled and convinced, so be it.
Jennifer Lawless, after losing a hard-fought primary to incumbent James Langevin, said on her Web site: "I didn't have connections in the Rhode Island 'good old boys network.' I didn't have rich friends with money to burn. And, to hear tell, I didn't have a chance . . . We didn't pick an easy fight. But sometimes those fights are worth having." She's said to be leaning heavily toward another run for office.
To those talented and able women who have a hard time seeing themselves up to the fight, the message is: Look at what you have accomplished in other arenas. If you are a leader in business or in community organizations, you can be a leader in politics. The rules are a little different. The fight can be a little rougher.
But as the number of women who made it to November shows, it's a fight you can win.