Part IV concludes the “She’s More Than a Symbol” blog series with Marianne Schnall. In this piece, Marianne looks to the future to ask how we can ensure more women will reach elected office and, ultimately, the presidency. Stay tuned for an upcoming audio series and exclusive interviews leading up to the 2016 election.
For the first time in history, we have three women presidential candidates—Hillary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, and Jill Stein. Could this be a sign that our country is closer to reaching the milestone of finally electing its first female president? Even if we do elect our first female president in 2016, will there be more female presidents to follow? Despite the historic first step these three candidacies represent, the numbers of women currently serving in political office are startlingly low: less than 20% of Congress and only six of 50 governors. Winning the biggest race once doesn’t mean we all get to rest easy. With the question of growing and sustaining women’s political momentum in mind, I looked back through the interviews from my book, What Will it Take to Make a Woman President? for insight on what we can do today to ensure a steady stream of female presidential candidates in the future.
First and foremost, we need more women in the pipeline. As The White House Project founder Marie Wilson explains, “where [do] our presidents come from: they come from the governors and we don’t have enough female governors; they come from Congress and we don’t have enough women in Congress. We don’t have enough women in power for it to be normal for women to be president.”
So how do we get more women in the political pipeline? It begins with getting more women to run for office in the first place. Research shows that women may need more encouragement and convincing to run than their male counterparts. US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) shared this insight: “Women really need to be asked to participate, they respond very well when they’re asked to run for office. The studies also show that when women do run, they win—they do have the ability, they do have the tenacity, they do have the drive, they can raise the funds. So I think we need a call to action. We need to actually invite women to come to the table, both in corporate America and in political life, because we need their thoughts, views, and guidance on these very important decisions that our country is making.”
Political analyst and Vice Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee Donna Brazile agreed: “Political socialization is still a factor. Most girls don’t grow up thinking that they want to be out there in the rough-and-tumble of politics. Politics is not, as they often say, for the fainthearted. You have to go out there and encourage women. You’ve got to give women the tools they need in order to believe that they can be successful when they get there.”
Another facet of this involves not just encouraging women to run for office, but teaching girls to be leaders from a young age. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg pointed out, “It starts young. Girls are discouraged from leading at an early age. The word “bossy” is largely applied to girls, not boys. I think we need to expect and encourage our girls and women to lead and contribute.” Jessica Valenti, author and founder of Feministing.com, agreed: “Wanting to lead and wanting to be powerful and wanting to be in leadership positions are seen as negative qualities in women that are really crushed from an early age in our culture.”
Another important issue that prevents more women from running for political office is the the biased media coverage they see. There was consensus among those interviewed that the often sexist portrayal of women, especially the coverage of women politicians and women leaders, impacts not only a woman’s self-perception but it also affects how people vote. Actress and Women’s Media Center co-founder Jane Fonda put it this way, “If the media shows women in a degrading, demeaning way, if female candidates are covered in the context of how they look and what their hair is like and how they’re dressed as opposed to how the male candidates are referred to, this has an impact on women and girls.” The Name It. Change It. research initiative explored the effect of sexist treatment of female candidates in the media and found that “neutral, positive, and negative descriptions of a woman candidate’s appearance all had detrimental impacts on her candidacy”. Even appearance coverage that purports to be neutral or complimentary damages a female candidate’s credibility.
Pat Mitchell, the first female president and CEO of PBS, says that consumers should hold the media accountable for biased coverage and be more conscious and discerning about the media they consume and support: “As consumers we can insist that the press cover a woman’s campaign in the same way as a man’s. And when they don’t, we can insist, ‘I’m not reading that paper anymore, I’m not going to that website, I’m not going to listen to that newscast until you give that woman candidate the same kind of fair and accurate coverage.’”
Another change that could ensure more women presidents in the future? Campaign finance reform and reducing the role of money in politics, as I discussed in my previous narrative. So many people I interviewed named fundraising and the massive amounts of money it takes to run as one of the biggest deterrents to women interested in public office. Political Parity’s Shifting Gears research confirms that this is particularly true for women considering runs for higher office. As writer, producer, and media consultant Carol Jenkins observed, “It’s in the ‘unladylike’ category to be talking about money and asking about money…You have to understand who has it. You have to convince them to give it to you. You have to feel that you’re worthy of it. Money is a piece of this machinery, unfortunately.”
We can also ensure more women run by supporting working women and families. Juggling work and family life is a problem most working women face, and this can be particularly challenging for female politicians. Many people I spoke with talked about the need for better policies supporting working women—such as family leave, child care, and pay equity—and also the need to help men break out of their own stereotypical roles. As Sheryl Sandberg put it, “We cannot have equality in the office until we have equality in the home.” Strategist and commentator Ana Navarro reflected, “I think the reason that there are fewer women in the media, in elected office, in high level corporate America [is] all the same reason[s]. Because, until very recently, women have been the ones that bore the brunt of family and home responsibilities. And it’s not been until recently that that has begun to change and we are now in an era where shared responsibilities have become the norm, not the exception.”
We cannot have equality in the office until we have equality in the home.
Each of these shifts—encouraging women to run for office, teaching girls to be leaders, campaign finance reform, and supporting women in the workplace— offers important potential to increase women leaders. Another equally meaningful way to ensure that we’ll have more women presidents is for all of us to be active, informed, and engaged citizens. Many people pointed out that not everyone needs to run for office; backing candidates is also a crucial role. This means supporting women candidates in every way possible—by voting, campaigning, and contributing funds—and standing by them once they’re in office. Author and co-founder of The Women’s Media Center Robin Morgan observed: “Being there for [women] in a way that is really loud and clear. Not forgetting once they win. We need to tweet and email and call and fax and use whatever means of communication—carrier pigeon, if necessary—when they have bills up that we approve of. We need to become less apathetic and more involved.”
Overall, the people I interviewed expressed hopeful optimism, a sense that we are on the right path to a woman president, and many more to come in the future. However, the low numbers of women currently serving in political office, the slow pace at which this representation has grown, and the continued challenges women face in the political arena are stark reminders that even if we elect our first woman president in 2016, we are far from parity. We cannot be passive or complacent. It requires all of us engaged in supporting the changes toward a goal that serves us all: a more reflective democracy, through greater diversity and equal representation.