Editor’s Note: Former US ambassador to Austria, Swanee Hunt, is founder of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, founder of Political Parity, an organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in politics, and author of “Rwandan Women Rising.” Andrea Dew Steele is founder and president of Emerge America, an organization that recruits, trains and provides a network for Democratic women running for office. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.
On January 3, Tina Smith will be sworn in to replace Al Franken as the junior US senator from Minnesota. The resignation of a male senator confessing to sexual misconduct, and his almost immediate replacement by a woman, is symbolic of an extraordinary period in American history. It also likely foreshadows a massive shift: the titanic infusion of women into leadership at all levels of government.
Right now, women make up less than 20% of Congress. In fact, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which tracks gender representation in government, the United States ranks number 101 globally in terms of women’s political representation, behind Guinea, Pakistan and – get this – Saudi Arabia.
Current numbers from Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics show that women’s representation at lower levels is equally dismal: only 24% of statewide elected officials, 25% of state legislators and 22% of major-city mayors are women. And the statistics are even more abysmal for women of color, about 18% of the US population, who make up only 7.1% of Congress, 2.2% of statewide elected executives, 6% of state legislators and 9% of major-city mayors.
In DC-speak, our government is pale, male and stale. There simply aren’t enough women in power to join their male allies who are holding perpetrators accountable. We cheer when we see a room with more than a modicum of female officials trying to make sure women’s experiences inform policy-making. Less cheery are the many long tables with dozens of chairs that ought to be filled by women leaning forward over stale coffee, pen in hand.
Of course, we’re not talking about one particular woman or one particular man. But as a group, men and women take strikingly different approaches to crafting legislative agendas. A mound of research – including a 2016 study by political scientists Craig Volden, Alan E. Wiseman and Dana E. Wittmer – shows that female legislators are more likely to introduce bills of importance to families. They are much stronger advocates for women’s health concerns, such as affordable contraception, breast cancer research and domestic violence laws.
The difference women make in politics isn’t limited to the Democratic Party. There are many energetic, wise, considerate, smart women in Republican ranks, although at only 9% of their party’s congressional caucus, they have a particularly rough row to hoe.
We may disagree with many fundamentals of their strategies, but there certainly are times our goals interlock. Compared with Republican congressmen, GOP women sponsor many more bills across the aisle. And in both parties, congresswomen, more than their male colleagues, champion family-friendly policies, including increasing the minimum wage, closing the wage gap, fighting for paid leave, expanding childcare options and improving education. Their unique experience as women, and often as mothers, is invaluable to the democratic process.
What more perfect time to make a dramatic shift toward gender parity in American government? The last time we significantly increased our numbers in Congress – 1992’s “Year of the Woman” – came on the heels of accusations of sexual misconduct during Anita Hill’s testimony in front of an all-male Senate Judiciary Committee.
Women across the country had had it. There was something deeply wrong with Professor Hill’s not being considered credible when she described with shocking and heartbreaking detail then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas (at that time her boss) allegedly trying to come on to her numerous times. Thomas denied it and was confirmed, but Hill’s ignored testimony incited scores of women across America to run for office. The number of senators tripled from two to six and a record 24 women were elected to the House of Representatives.
Similarly, women are galvanized after last year’s election of Donald Trump – with more than a dozen accusations of sexual harassment, plus his own bragging of sexual assault (all of which he denies). On the world’s largest stage, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of almost 3 million votes, leaving over 65 million voters feeling disenfranchised by her electoral defeat. Then Trump’s inauguration was upstaged by the gargantuan Women’s March, a watershed day that drew millions of people worldwide.
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Now, at the grassroots, more numbers bode dramatic change. Emerge America, which offers training to female Democratic candidates, has seen an 87% increase in applicants to their candidate training programs. She Should Run, an advocacy group supporting female candidates, reports that more than 15,000 women have contacted them since the election. And, in contrast to about 900 calls in 2016, EMILY’s List has received 25,000 from women exploring running for office.
This is a political seismic shift. We’ll be feeling the Trump afterquake long past the 2018 elections. We stand staring over a brink, into a world where men who prey on women are replaced by women. Given the President’s guffaw at global warming, a metaphorical twist is ironic. The climate has forever changed. Hallelujah.