Why Women Aren't Taking Over Congress After All

Election '16

Marking the 20-year anniversary of the Year of the Woman, Karen Tumulty’s front-page Washington Post article details the never-ending challenges of gender parity in American politics. While an informative piece about the United States’ 78th world ranking in woman’s representation in national legislatures (we're tied with Turkmenistan, for those keeping track), it reflects a flawed conventional wisdom about why more women don’t run for and win elected office.  

In discussing why more women are not politically engaged, many well-known facts were listed:

  • Women often wait until later in their careers and lives to run for office, making it a challenge to rise through the ranks to high office;
  • Many women wait to be asked to run, instead of initiating a political campaign, often questioning their credentials and qualifications more so than their male-counterparts;
  • Often women feel that the electorate is biased against women candidates, with high-profile examples of Clinton, Palin, Pelosi and Bachmann as media and partisan targets fresh in their mind.

The answer to these challenges, according to numerous women’s groups, is to train more women to run for office. The premise behind countless political “boot camps” -- like the Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics' Ready to Run program, and the newly minted 50-50 in 2020 women’s groups throughout the country -- is that if more women are prepared to run for office, the numbers will change.

The problem with this strategy is that it doesn’t work. The history of the past 20 years proves this clearly.

In 1992, as a young political consultant determined to bring parity to politics, I grounded my early political life working for Debbie Stabenow, a rising star who is now one of just 17 female senators. During that election cycle and for many to come, I flew around the country working with women on their campaigns, in the hope that by joining the efforts of so many women who tirelessly gave of themselves (and for a lot less money than our male counterparts), I could help bring us closer to gender parity in government.

Eight years later, with hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles behind me, I examined the challenge of woman in politics as I created a leadership course at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. That's when I realized that the reasons women didn't run weren't as well understood as we thought. Twenty years on, we've had nowhere near the impact we'd hoped for. Why?

The truth is that preparing women for the battle of politics is not the answer. That's because there's more to surviving on the brutal political landscape than entering and winning elections. It turns out that women are not running for office because too many of them view political engagement as senseless, and all too often futile. We tend to be pragmatic about this; talented women will look at the way policy gets made and decide that there are better ways to leverage their time and energy. No amount of preparation is going to dissuade smart women from focusing their energy and attention on real world solutions, rather than engage with a political system that exacts a very high personal cost while only very rarely creating meaningful change.

In other words, politics is still played by rules that were set up by men, and give the advantage to the way men play. Might makes right. The accumulation and wielding of power is rewarded. Winners take all. This environment actually works against people who want to find innovative and meaningful solutions to societal challenges, and create enduring change for the betterment of the greater good. 

As the literal and figurative givers of life, women value the investment of their time and want to see that it has meaning. Caring for children and family members and looking after the underserved in the community disproportionately falls into female hands, both personally and professionally. It's a job we take seriously, and which draws us toward politics in the first place.

But once we get there, many of us don't want to spend our time seeking the approval of the old boys' club, asking strangers for money, and launching attack ads against political opponents. We'd much rather roll up our sleeves and find a better way to teach art in failing schools, cleanup a neighborhood park and make meals for those who wouldn’t otherwise eat. Given the choice, it's no surprise many women will choose to put their energies in places where they can see they make a tangible difference in people's lives.

This leads to the elephant in the room: what about the women who do make it? For the most part, the women who rise to the upper echelons of elective office have become so immersed in the pitched battle that they become even more competitive than their male counterparts -- a development that blunts their effectiveness as real changemakers. While they may advocate for some positive social and justice issues, they often find themselves too busy playing the hierarchical, authoritarian mens' game to spend any energy on changing the tone, nature and outcomes of a system that's designed to bring people down rather than build them up.

Given this, is it any wonder that women who are truly interested in change eschew elective office? As a girl, I wanted to be the first women president. I dreamed of the job not because I wanted to live in a big house and tell people what to do, but because I wanted to see people lifted out of poverty, and to be able to pursue their passions and live in safe, caring and happy communities. Yes, it was a bit utopian -- but given the choice between giving it up to fight political battles, or working toward this goal each day in the way I lead my life, the latter choice is the obvious one for me. And given what I see in my classrooms, with my clients and in the statistics, I am not the only one choosing to lead by example instead of in elected office.

What will it take to change the future for women in the American political system? Three things need to happen to change the way women (indeed, everyone with a sincere desire to create change) engage in the process:

1. Women need to run, and serve, as women. There is a choice between entering politics and playing the masculine game, and consciously choosing to be true to oneself. Consultants, women’s groups and funders may all encourage a “traditional” route to office -- but one needs to look no further than Congress to see how well that strategy is working out for our country. The public is crying out for authentic leaders willing to work for the good of the people rather than the fortunes of individual candidates. Women who stand in their feminine power, and insist on building consensus and creating real solutions will be rewarded.

2. Local office offers more balance and more opportunity for real results. In the American Idol era, too many of us have come to believe that our lives are meaningless unless they're being acted out on big stages. In politics, the stratification is clear, and the pressure to “move up” is enormous for anyone with a modicum of talent. National parties hungry for victory scour statehouses looking for the next big candidate. But the truth is that local and state office provides great opportunity for a more balanced life -- and it's often the place where real change occurs. While most may believe we wear seat belts because of national legislation, it only became a prerequisite for federal funding after it was first passed in the Michigan Legislature.

3. Public service is not for life. Because most people have bought into the fallacy that success in public office comes only by rising to “positions of power,” women are viewed as being “disadvantaged” as per the earlier statistics in this article. If, however, we define success as having a positive impact on your community and creating real world results, then the entire approach changes. Women who take this attitude don’t need to be beholden to special interests gunning for the next election. Instead, they are free to pursue the best possible strategies for their constituents, and decide about the next election when the time comes. 

If this sounds idealistic, Maryland legislator Sharon Grosfeld would beg to differ. In 16 successful years, she didn’t worry about re-election, barely raised money, and is the author of many key pieces of legislation at the forefront of women’s rights, human rights and family law. She easily won each election, was respected for her approach, and voluntarily retired after her fourth term to start a new chapter in her life. What a great way for a woman to serve the public, balance her family’s needs and move on to new adventures when she was ready.

The truth is that our testosterone-laden political system is broken. It doesn’t work for anyone other than a few powerbrokers at the top and a handful of moneyed special interests—and women are staying away in droves. Despite millions of dollars, thousands of hours of trainings and the singular focus of dozens of organizations, the needle isn’t moving. If we are serious about bringing parity to our politics system, then we need to change the system.

The system won’t be changed by men or by those currently in office. It will require brave women throughout the country willing to enter local and state office with a different set of values -- and determined to maintain them without compromise, and then walk away when their time in the fight is over. These women may not be celebrated on CNN or FOX. But those who choose this path will change the world—and that will be enough for them.

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