Beyond Hillary: How to Get More Women in Office


In 1992, the much-vaunted "Year of the Woman" when 27 women were elected to Congress, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland said, "Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus. We're not a fad, a fancy or a year."

To a certain degree, Mikulski was right. It wasn't just a fad; the numbers of women in Congress have slowly and steadily increased since then. But there has never since been an election like 1992, with a sizable class of incoming women legislators. And, needless to say, women have yet to achieve anything close to parity at the highest levels of government.

Hillary Clinton's historic campaign for president has inspired some important conversations about women in politics, mostly focused on how sexism has played out in her campaign, or how voters have responded to a female candidate for such a high office. But it's time for us to look down the pipeline. Progressives have a vested interest in getting more women into office -- and not only because it's good to have our elected bodies better reflect the population. Nearly 30 percent of women in Congress are members of the Progressive Caucus, while only 10 percent of men in Congress are. As blogger Matt Stoller put it, "The more women in office, the more progressives in office." (For a look at some up-and-coming progressive women in politics, see the chart in this issue.)

For all the progress made in electing women over the past 16 years, however, the glass ceiling remains stubbornly in place. None of the remarkable individual women who have risen to the highest ranks of our political system -- Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton--has been more than a crack in the glass. To be sure, they are inspirational pioneers who give us a first glimpse of a better, more equitable future. But the glass ceiling won't truly be shattered until women have achieved a critical mass in government.

Despite the drama and excitement that have accompanied Clinton's campaign, we're not at a high point for women in politics. The high-water mark came nearly two decades ago. The biggest shifts toward a more woman-friendly political culture all happened between 1991 and 1993. Those years saw not only the largest group of women elected to Congress but to state legislatures and as governors. That's also when Democratic women came together to form the Women's Leadership Forum to get more women involved in the party. Whether it was the Anita Hill hearings (which some women have cited as the reason they chose to run for office) or simply an unusual number of open seats, a record-breaking number of women seized the moment and, for the first time as a group, got a foothold in national politics.

Those days feel a long way away. Since the Year of the Woman, the number of women in national office has leveled off. Today, women are still less than 25 percent of senators, representatives, governors, and state legislators. The 2008 election isn't shaping up to be much different. In 1992, 11 women were candidates in Senate races. So far this year, only two women have won Senate primaries. We currently have eight women governors (including Democrat Janet Napolitano, whom Dana Goldstein profiles in this issue), and this election year will see 11 gubernatorial races. Thus far, only two women have won primaries. Compare that to the record-setting year for women governors, 1994, which saw 34 women file for races and 10 win their primaries. It's clear we aren't going anywhere fast.

Those numbers mirror the situation for women in other careers. In almost every professional field, women are stuck at the 25 percent barrier. We're less than 25 percent of corporate officers, law partners, writers for major magazines, and Wall Street execs. And I would argue it's the same set of factors (partners unwilling to shoulder their share of the child-care burden, inflexible workplace policies, straight-up sexism) that keep women from rising through the ranks of both corporations and Congress. Outliers like Pelosi and Clinton -- and Fortune 500 CEOs like Xerox's Ann Mulcahy -- do not in themselves amount to the shift necessary to make lasting change. When a magazine hires a female editor-in-chief, the number of women's bylines does not automatically increase. I would argue that the reason sweeping change doesn't occur is not because these remarkable women aren't doing enough. It's simply that one woman at the top cannot change an entire culture. Looking at these numbers across the board, it's clear that the real ceiling is not limiting individual women's ambitions. It's keeping women as a group from breaking the 25 percent barrier.

If we want to cross that threshold, we need to look at the system. We're never going to successfully implement quotas as other countries have, and it takes time to change the traditional views about a woman's proper place in society that persist in certain U.S. regions (see Harold Meyerson's piece in this issue). But those who would agree with the statement, "We need more women in positions of political power" -- most of the Democratic Party leadership and most readers of this magazine, I'd guess -- need to take a step back in the wake of Clinton's candidacy and, rather than examine what went wrong in the Clinton example, look at how to ensure we don't have to rely on outliers like Clinton in elections for the next 30 years. The real goal should be to identify significant numbers of female candidates as future leaders and promote them through the ranks in a far more conventional manner. In other words, to change our very political culture -- not just have one woman triumph over it.

That's why the Year of the Woman was actually important, despite the fact that it did not usher in a new, woman-friendly era of politics. It showed us how a group of women in politics could support each other and rise through the ranks together, rather than a single woman simply trying to play the game with the boys. The four Democratic women senators elected in 1992 held meetings as a group once they had made it to Capitol Hill (they were joined by Mikulski, who was already serving in the Senate), and discussed the problems they were facing in the boys'-club culture. At times they issued joint statements that began with, "We, the women of the Senate." The women in the House demanded equal access to the main gym and fitness facilities, because the women's gym had fallen into disrepair. The Democratic women also consistently voted together -- including lending crucial support to President Bill Clinton during the 1993 budget battle. All this amounted to a subtle shift in the culture of the U.S. Congress -- not a sea change but a bigger step toward breaking the 25 percent barrier (and thus the glass ceiling) than Hillary Clinton's candidacy.

Our recent political history offers many examples of women in national politics who boosted each other's careers. One key way to get more women into office is to ask them to run (as Ezra Klein points out in this issue), and women are often the ones doing the asking. Pelosi was elected to Congress in part because she was handpicked in 1987 by the dying Rep. Sala Burton to be her successor. Louisiana's Mary Landrieu was pushed to enter politics by Gov. Ann Richards of Texas -- Landrieu lost her 1995 gubernatorial bid but was elected to the Senate the following year. And once they're elected, women are more likely to turn to other women for mentorship. Sen. Barbara Mikulski made how-to manuals for the Democratic women who joined the Senate in 1992, Eleanor Clift and Tom Brazaitis note in their 2003 book, Madam President. Mikulski's guidebook, titled "Getting Started in the Senate," contained tips on everything from responding to constituent mail to getting a good committee appointment.

Of course, women can increase their political prominence in ways besides winning electoral office. The Democratic Party has long anointed its rising stars by designating them to give speeches at the Democratic National Convention or the official response to the president's State of the Union address. There are also cabinet positions, which carry great political power. (Only 37 women have ever been cabinet members.) Using these appointments to elevate more women in politics is something we should demand of all elected progressives.

Until a critical mass is reached, this sort of concerted effort to promote women in politics is crucial. In an ideal world, such efforts would start with party apparatuses like the Democratic campaign committees taking pains to encourage women to run for office -- and then supporting their campaigns. They would continue with donations from groups like EMILY's List and, after women are elected, with additional support and mentoring from their colleagues in Congress. Mikulski, for her part, was shepherded through her first year in the Senate by her Democratic colleagues Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. She called them her "Galahads."

The goal, though, is to shift the political culture enough so that newly elected women don't need Galahads. Since the 1970s, many women, in politics and business, have "broken the glass ceiling" alone. But until women are lined up behind (and next to) that one woman who busts through, it's going to be hard for us to move beyond the exceptions like Hillary Clinton.

Reprinted with permission from Ann Friedman, "Beyond Hillary: Strength in Numbers," The American Prospect, Volume 19, Number 7: June 23, 2008. The American Prospect, 2000 L Street, Suite 717, Washington, DC 20036. All rights reserved.

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