Friday, November 5, 2010

A Woman's Place Is In The House (Of Representatives) And The Senate


Election talk this week seems to be dominated by the issue of color: A “red wave” has swept the country, from coast to coast. Blue lost. Red won. But little else has been discussed about the shifting demographics in our new 112th Congress. Take women, for example…

Since Jeannette Rankin was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1917, there has been a gradual rise in the number of women serving in the US Congress. In 1932 Hattie Caraway – “the little lady from Arkansas” – was the first woman to be elected to the US Senate, though there have been many years since that the Senate has been void of women. If you go back far enough in the congressional archives, under women Senators you will see this: N/A. Yes, women used to be not applicable to the Senate. The case was the same on a state level: Rose Ann Vuich – the first woman elected to the California Senate – took to ringing a bell whenever her fellow Senators addressed the assembly as "Gentlemen,” as a reminder that there was a woman present. It was the 107th congress (2001-2003) that put our number of female Senators into double digits. Since then the number of women who hold Senate seats has grown steadily, though we’re still only at 17% - hardly a number representative of the American female population. The case has been exactly the same in the House.

Until now.

Our November 4th election marks the very first time that women have had a net loss in seats. Though we won’t know for sure until the Alaska race is sorted out, it’s looking like women will hold their 17% in the Senate, but lose seats in the House. This fact doesn’t seem to be getting much airtime, but more importantly where is the discussion of why this is the case? What questions do we need to ask in order to reach the goal of more women to represent us in government?

Are women running?

In the 2010 election, women candidates competed for fewer than one-third of the 435 seats at stake in the U.S. House and only 15 seats in the 100 member U.S. Senate. A national Women’s Campaign Forum program called “She Should Run” – which claims to “help women think about running for office”- points out that when women do run, they win at the same rate as men. Yet, women are 50% less likely to run for office.

How do we talk about women running for office?

Slate’s Hanna Rosin provides a narrative about the 2010 election she assumes we can all relate to:

Sarah Palin is Carrie, directing the action; her Samanthas lost, while her Mirandas won. The rules were the same as they are for dating: You can't show too much crazy. Nikki Haley, for example, could have gone either way, with the affair allegations and the Tea Party extremism. But in her demeanor she is so solidly a Miranda that crazy did not stick to her.

Wait, is this Sleepover Friends, or are we talking about election to the United States Congress? Must everything female come down to Sex & The City?

Geraldine Ferraro was asked in the vice presidential debate of 1984 “Do you think... the Soviets might be tempted to take advantage of you simply because you are a woman?” During Hillary’s ’08 bid for the presidency, sexist tshirt slogans abounded, including “Iron My Shirts” and “Life’s a Bitch So Don’t Vote for Her.”

Is the sexism dished out to female candidates part of the reason that women are reticent to run? And are we as women unwittingly adding to that sexism by perpetuating stereotypes?

Is there something to be learned from those who have succeeded?

To date, thirty-eight women have served in the United States Senate; 222 in the House. Perhaps they have something to offer us in the way of advice? A roadmap of sorts, to surviving the landmines inherent in the process of “campaigning while female?”

One thing is clear: We’re losing ground where we should be gaining it. And while the country is busy screaming about partisanship and pendulum swings, perhaps we can create a broader discussion about the place of women in the leadership of our country.

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