What Will It Take To Get More Women In Politics?
Where are the women?
In 226 years, my Indiana hometown has only had one woman as a mayor. Her name is Cosette Simon, and she served for 11 days under emergency circumstances. Now that I live in Los Angeles, a larger city with more progressive leanings, I’m reading about Estelle Lawton Lindsey—the only woman mayor in L.A.’s history. She served for 36 hours as a temporary stand-in for the out-of-town mayor.
These same stories play out in varying degrees at every level of political office across the U.S., with only 22% of mayors in 2019 identifying as women. At the state level, this country didn’t see its first woman governor elected in her own right until 1975 (Ella Grasso, governor of Connecticut), and the record number of female governors has topped out at nine. In 2020, women hold 23.7 percent of Congress seats—immense progress from only three percent in 1971. Globally, the numbers average out the same: women make up 24 percent of national legislative offices around the world.
At local, state, and federal levels in the U.S., we have not achieved equitable representation across many demographics, including gender, and we’re missing out.
Why do we need more women in politics?
“Women in Congress sponsor or co-sponsor more bills than men—meaning more gets done when women are in elected office. Women are more effective lawmakers,” says Dr. Christina Barsky, Assistant Professor of Public Administration & Policy at the University of Montana, citing this research.
Beyond the research-backed advantages of a more gender-diverse political world, women are deeply impacted by legislation, but legislators are disproportionately white men. Women are more likely to experience poverty or receive SNAP benefits than men, don’t have paid parental leave, and have experienced more healthcare limitations. Especially around reproductive healthcare with the politicization of birth control access—did you know that until 2010, insurance providers could charge women more for premiums?
Let’s get one thing straight: none of this is because women contribute less—it’s because women are valued (and paid) less than men. The people making decisions in the United States aren’t always the people experiencing the issues at hand.
“If our school boards, city councils, commissioners courts, state and federal governments actually looked like our country, we’d have policies that would address the challenges all Americans face,” says Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, who represents Texas’s 16th Congressional District. In order to address the issues that affect Americans, legislation should be made by people who represent the true face of the country. “We all have a stake in having thriving, prosperous communities,” Escobar says. “But we won’t have that until our government reflects the diversity of America.”
So why are there fewer women?
Historically, women candidates are subject to additional scrutiny based on their gender. But it doesn’t mean they don’t win.
“When women or anyone from underrepresented populations run for office, they have a fairly good chance of winning,” says Jyoti Sarda, the producer of “And She Could Be Next,” a documentary that follows several women of color, and their organizers, as they navigate political candidacy in 2018 and 2019. “In the past, generally elected officials were white and male, so you assume that’s what a politician should look like…the last few years have proven that really genuine, smart, and authentic candidates [can] run—and they win. It just literally takes somebody deciding to run.”
The same data that sees women not applying for the same jobs as men is at play here. “Women are as likely as male candidates to win when they run, but women must be more qualified than a male candidate to be successful,” says Dr. Barsky. This means, of course, that a woman must work harder than a man to get the same job, a conclusion that the Center for American Women In Politics also notes.
With 2018 having been a historic year for diversity in congress, we’ve only just begun. “It has an exponential ripple effect,” explains Marjan Safinia, one of the directors of “And She Could Be Next.” “The number of women of color running, just for congress, has gone up significantly from 2018, including on the Republican side.” When you see someone in office that looks like you, barriers begin to break down.
What we can do to change that
“There’s an organizer in all of us,” says Grace Lee, a fellow director of “And She Could Be Next,” reminding us that we can start wherever we’re at. “I’m organizing within my own community of filmmakers right now. I’ve always done that, and I don’t think it’s going to translate to running for office, but there is always strength in numbers.” Lee recommends that we start by organizing where we’re at, no matter what industry we work in or what our community needs.
The most important “first step” we can take to create a government that adequately represents its people is to get involved wherever we can on the political spectrum. No act of civic engagement is too small—checking your voter registration and making a plan to vote are powerful ways to have your voice heard. Voter suppression, including the purging of names and reduction in polling locations (like what happened in Georgia in 2018), is a rampant issue. And by encouraging our friends and family to vote, regardless of political affiliation, we continue to ensure that the election results reflect the people’s choice. You can get familiar with ballot terms here and learn how to prepare for voting by mail here.
Secondly, we can continue to encourage women in our community to become candidates. Caretakers and teachers can empower children, regardless of gender, to get curious about politics and explore potential careers as legislators. Even emphasizing competitive sports for young women can help spur a career in politics—since competition and political ambition have some links.
It’s as simple as just asking qualified women (and asking again) to run for office. Even getting more women involved as volunteers is an important step towards candidacy. “I didn’t immediately run for office when I got into politics,” says Escobar. “In fact, I was a volunteer for ten years! I helped candidates who inspired me and who shared my values. […] If we can encourage women to start by supporting the campaigns of great candidates, it really lowers the barriers to entry when she’s ready to run for office.”
Next, it’s essential to secure financial backing in the early days of the campaign. “Early fundraising is really important […] you’ve got to get the engine running in that first go,” says Safinia. “For people who want to see [more women in political office], seek out the women running and get them money early. And not just giving money—host some folks in your home, tell some friends about the candidate, to really help get the engine turning.” Helping new candidates reach voters in the earliest days of the race amplifies their message and mobilizes organizers for a long and successful campaign.
Beyond all this, getting involved wherever your skills align can help encourage others to join, too. You can sit in on City Council meetings, write to your representatives, and volunteer at the polls or as an organizer for a candidate you feel strongly about. Who knows—maybe someday, that means you’ll want to run yourself.
Resources for women who are considering running
There are so many resources available that can help support underrepresented people who want to become candidates. Remember, you don’t have to run for the highest level of government to make an impact; local elections make direct and impactful differences in their communities, too. Here are a few organizations with resources if you’re interested in running or learning more about how to support women candidates:
This list of leadership resources from CAWP offers state-based and national resources for women interested in running for office or getting involved with political campaigns
She Should Run offers free online courses, virtual cohorts, and has other resources for future women leaders
Electable is a membership community for women and non-binary people who want to campaign
Victory Fund holds trainings and endorses candidates who identify as LGBTQ and support full equality for the community, reproductive freedom, and more
Emily’s List is dedicated to getting pro-choice Democratic women into elected office—they offer training and endorsements
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, remember: the U.S. is changing, and our political body will change to reflect it—even if it takes more time than we’d like it to.
“America is a constantly evolving idea. It is not a stagnant idea, and America is its people,” says Safinia, as a reminder to not give up hope, and to continue fighting for change. “What could possibly be more American than actively, vocally using your power to protest, to vote, to run for office, to exercise dissent, to use free speech?”
And it’s this change and evolution that makes us. Lee explains a perspective that has a lingering ring of hope: “The fact that people have continued to rebel and create their own movements is really the crux of the New American Majority. It’s what’s exciting about politics here.”
How do you stay civically engaged in your community—even if you’re not planning to run? Share in the comments below!
Emily Torres is the Editorial Director at The Good Trade. She’s a Los Angeles transplant who was born and raised in Indiana, where she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her reading or writing, caring for her rabbits, or practicing at the yoga studio.