“Just lunch, or is it Campaign 2016 just getting started?” one pundit breathlessly asks of a meal between President Obama and his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. The New York Times does a deep dive into the Clinton Foundation, while others list “The People Already Rearranging Their Lives for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Campaign.” And every major news outlet has asked some form of this question: Is America ready for a woman president?
The media are, in fact, obsessed with whether Hillary Clinton will become the first female president. Her every move is analyzed and interpreted, like tea leaves from which we might deduce her 2016 intentions. But in their heavy breathing over Clinton, many in the media seem to be ignoring an equally important story about women and politics. Put another way, instead of setting up a beat dedicated to covering Clinton, perhaps the Times could better serve the public by using those resources to cover women and politics more broadly.
Will shattering the Oval Office’s glass ceiling and electing a madam president be an inspiring achievement for this country? Of course. Do we also need madam mayors, madam senators, madam councilwomen, madam sheriffs, madam governors and madam congresswomen all across the nation? You betcha.
In fact, this has never been more urgent because women across the country are in the fight of their lives. Anti-woman legislation — slashing funding for education, health and nutrition services to low-income women and their families — is everywhere, especially in the states. In Texas last month, Gov. Rick Perry (R) signed a bill that will likely shut down 90 percent of the state’s abortion clinics and force low-income Texans to drive hundreds of miles to the closest clinic. At the same time, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) brazenly violated a campaign promise and enacted stringent anti-choice restrictions. These measures were quietly, shamefully, passed as part of a motorcycle safety bill.
A woman doesn’t always represent the most progressive candidate on a given ballot — just look at the New York mayoral race. But one key to turning back the regressive tide sweeping the nation is for progressive women to enter office at the national, state and local levels and make our “representative” political bodies actually representative.
Currently, American women hold just under a fifth of state legislative seats. A similar percentage occupies elective executive statewide office — a mere 1-percentage-point increase from 1993. Of the 100 largest cities in the United States, only a dozen have female mayors. Five states have female governors. Only one, Maggie Hassan (D) of New Hampshire, is pro-choice.
The difference is not simply cosmetic. Just look at some of the members of People for the American Way’s Young Elected Officials Network, which is building a pipeline of effective progressive leaders. It was Colorado Rep. Crisanta Duran (D), the youngest Latina legislator in state history, who sponsored a bill to fund comprehensive sex education. San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim led the effort to crack down on misinformation at crisis pregnancy centers, while Vermont Rep. Jill Krowinski (D) and state Sen. Sally Fox (D) are leading the charge on equal pay. And while Wendy Davis’s heroic, 13-hour filibuster of Texas’s anti-choice bill was unsuccessful, her strong stand built voice and power, generating the momentum necessary to lead to lasting change.
Unfortunately, women running for elected office confront greater barriers than their male counterparts. Their appearance, qualifications — even psychology — are subjected to intense, often crass, scrutiny. Our electoral system, in which single-member districts and million-dollar campaigns are the norm, adversely affects women’s representation. Many prospective female candidates, as I’ve previously written, choose not to run because they don’t think they can raise enough money, and too few women are even encouraged to try.
“The issue isn’t that voters won’t vote for women — it’s that we don’t have enough women running,” notes Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
All of that is changing, though. For 28 years, EMILY’s Listhas been helping pro-choice female candidates raise money for campaigns. While attention has focused on its “Madam President” initiative to elect the first woman president, the organization’s Political Opportunity Program is heavily invested in recruiting, training and supporting female candidates at all levels. Given that the 10 states that use multi-member districts — where multiple people represent one legislative district — have a higher percentage of women legislators, a group called Representation 2020 is fighting for voting systems that incorporate multi-seat districts into their legislative bodies. At the same time, a strong push for public financing of our elections will be an enormous boost for female candidates.
If women continue to enter elected office at higher rates, we can have a government that makes a priority of the concerns of women in the workplace, at the doctor’s office and at the ballot box. We could make real progress on the basics: living wages and equal pay, child care, paid family leave and women’s health. And we could, at long last, advance a vision of genuine equality for women — not because they are “wives, mothers and daughters,” but because they are inherently created equal.