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The Pitiful Progress of Women in Politics

There may be some argument somewhere that although 50.7 percent of Americans are female, there's no reason that half of our Congress or our state legislatures or even our governors need to be women. Well that argument against a 50-50 split, whatever its rationale, apparently is powerful. On the other hand, the assertion that because women are half the people, they should be half the elected lawmakers has little traction in this nation.

Case in point: although a woman did run a close race for U.S. president in 2008, the number of women who won elected national office last year was sadly small. For example, of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, only 74 are women. And that's actually a record high -- up by 3 percent -- representing 16 percent of the House. In the 100-person U.S. Senate, there are 17 women, equaling 17 percent, also an all-time high. Those percentages are consistent with women heading up state houses. There are eight governors at 16 percent. The best showing is among state legislatures where there are 1,789 women serving in the 50 states or 24.4 percent, a ratio that has increased by less than 4 percentage points over the past 15 years.

It is generally acknowledged that there's little power in a voting bloc that small. In fact, students of the Norwegian Legislature note that women office holders there exert more control when they have one-third of the seats, which has been the situation since the 1980s.


In Iraq, the requirement is that 25 percent of the 275 directly elected members must be women. At the last election, there were 70 women elected or 25.45 percent. It is ironic to note that the United States, which helped influence the drafting of Iraq's Constitution just four years ago, has never hit that 25 percent mark for women in national office in this country.

The problem may be the lack of women candidates willing to throw their hats, egos, and families into the ring. Many papers have been written about the reasons for this gender gap, and they all seem to conclude that women see themselves as less qualified than men and less likely to win. At the White House Project, an organization dedicated to finding, training, supporting, and mentoring women for political office, one leader said that when we train women to run, the first thing they stand up and ask is "Can you have a family and do this job?"

And then there is the sexism. Hillary Clinton was among the outspoken women labeled as "fishwifey" or "bitchy." Sarah Palin was watched for her hairstyles, her clothes, and was ridiculed as a "hottie," a "babe."

So along come the support groups, bringing encouragement, money, training, endorsements, and mentoring to female candidates. The newest in San Diego is Run Women Run, the brainchild of "serial entrepreneur" Barbara Bry. The former Los Angeles Times reporter helped launch UCSD's Connect and Athena, Proflowers, a software company, Voice of San Diego and San Diego News Network.

Run Women Run is gearing up for 2010 and as a political action committee, will only fund woman candidates for state offices who favor abortion rights. (Thus far, my research hasn't located a San Diego-based political action committee dedicated to increasing women's representation in the legislature and limiting its support to women who are anti-abortion.) Right now, the only prospective candidate is termed-out San Diego City Council member Toni Atkins, expected to run for an Assembly seat. This year, women represent 25 percent of the Assembly and 32 percent of the State Senate. Just one of the 13 women senators is a Republican, and four of the 20 female Assembly members are Republicans. So, assuming that most Democrats are pro- or mixed-choice, Run Women Run's abortion rights candidates seem more likely to get elected in California than their anti-abortion counterparts.



Francine Busby // March 13, 2009:

Thank you for highighting the dismal record that we have in our country of electing women in office. While the numbers highlight the disparity, they do not tell the whole story. Women in office tend to be strong advocates for issues that affect families, health, education and equality that are often labeled “liberal”. Women bring a consensus style of interaction and hands-on work ethic that often contrasts to that of their male counterparts. Increased gender-balance in our statehouses and congress would moderate political polarization, increase dialogue and humanize important issues that are often reduced to economic and political bartering chips.

Congratulations to Barbara Bry for taking the initiative to form Run Women Run! It is a valuable asset for all San Diegans.