Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why Don’t Women Run?

For public office, that is.

According to Paula Lee, an electoral system reform activist and co-President of the Sacramento League of Women Voters, only about 19% of our Congressional representatives (the US House and Senate) are women. On the state and local levels, only one out of four legislators is a woman (check on your state’s legislative gender parity at this website created by FairVote- it's alarming.)  Why such a low number? 
Paula Lee and me in Sacramento, 

Paula pointed out that women toiled 70 years for the right to vote, and while things have improved in many arenas there are still not that many female politicians. “One thing that hasn’t changed in the last 100 years,” she noted, “is that women are still dependent on men to vote in our best interests- on issues such as equal pay for equal work, funding for Planned Parenthood, family leave, and so on- because there are so few women in public office.” Paula says that women should be working as hard for equal representation as they did to get suffrage in the first place.

The US has also been slow, relative to other western countries, to elect women as top leaders. Angela Merkel has been Chancellor of Germany since 2005, and Margaret Thatcher served as Prime Minister in the UK from 1979-1990. Maybe Hilary Clinton will make history in the US in our 2016 presidential election; or just maybe her choice of fashion styles will cost her the election. It would be so nice to get beyond this.

Politicians are the ones who set policy and decide about how public money gets spent, and we women are leaving these tough decisions up to the men…Which might just be why the military gets more and more funding while our schools crumble and people in need lack food, housing, health and mental health care, and treatment for substance abuse. But it isn’t all our fault; there are structural issues within the two-party system that discourage women from running and make it harder for them to run, win.  See this great article, Men Rule: The Continued Under-Representation of Women in U.S. Politics, for a longer discussion about this.

The article explores seven reasons that women don’t run, including “women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office,” and “female potential candidates are less competitive, less confident, and more risk averse than their male counterparts.” Women are doing amazing things now that they certainly weren’t doing when I was growing up; running big companies, going to space, serving in battle, becoming research scientists, whatever. There’s no question we can do whatever we put our minds to. But politics has just not been a popular choice for us. I’ve been asked several times to run for state representative and have said no, pleading family responsibilities and the demands of running a small business. While those were real issues for me, I’ve also done a ton of volunteer work for nonprofits and in my town. So if I’m willing to devote considerable time to serving on the school board, land conservation, or supporting affordable housing development, why hasn’t running for public office been an option I’d consider? Need to do some soul searching on that one…

One of the electoral reforms Paula has been working for over the last 20 years, and which she thinks would make it easier for women to run for- and win- state and local elections is called proportional representation. Our current system is all or nothing, winner-take-all. A simple majority gets a candidate elected, and even when the losing side has a substantial minority (think of a 51-49% split), they get no power. Paula and other believe that multi-winner ranked choice voting, used in cities such as Cambridge MA and Minneapolis, MN, offers voters better options and fairer representation.

Paula and I didn’t just talk about politics, though. She spent 10 years working for the El Dorado Women’s Center in Placerville, CA (now the Center for Violence-Free Relationships). Another thing that hasn’t changed for women in the last 100 years is that they’re still victims of sexual and domestic violence; in childhood, in high school, on college campuses, and beyond. “’No’ still does not mean ‘no’,” says Paula.  

I can vouch for that because I stopped by the Stockton Public Library on Monday to look for articles about the suffrage envoys’ trip in 1915 (and found some!). When I browse through old newspapers I always like to look at what else they were talking about at the time; in 1915, WW I in Europe was frequent front page news, for example. But it was sad and disturbing to see articles about a man having “unnatural relations” with his 7-year old niece who was left in his care after her mother died, a farmer who murdered his wife and four children, or a man who, when he found his mistress with another man, shot and killed her. We have rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters to help protect those who can escape, but 100 years later we’re still not doing a great job as a society preventing this violence from happening in the first place.

Maybe if there were more women in public office we could create policies and programs that support families better, treat mental illness, and provide education to prevent violence against women and children.

Rick, Harry and me in Stockton
Monday night we stayed in Stockton with an old friend from college, Harry Mersmann, who’s doing amazing work as a professor at San Joaquin Delta Community College, and having fun playing the ukelele. Great to catch up with him after all these years.

Then it was a short drive to Auburn, CA, en route to Reno, NV. We stayed in a nice AirBnB, ran in the beautiful Auburn State Recreation Area and cruised old town Auburn for evidence of the Lincoln Highway, which the envoys followed for a big chunk of the trip. 

It was nice to decompress for a night from the intensity of the last few weeks, but I'm meeting with some history buffs in Reno later today and really looking forward to that. Sara Bard Field had spent quite a bit of time in Nevada in 1914 helping women win the vote there, and had also lived there for a year when she was divorcing her first husband, so she had a lot of friends and the envoys' arrival was cause for quite a celebration.

Auburn started as a gold rush town- here I'm hanging with
the statue of a prospector in old town Auburn

1 comment:

  1. Yes, the violence is issue remains essentially the same (I think we read some of the same old newspapers--I access them through and have seen some of the same articles. Disheartening to know how little things have changed in some respects. Hopefully, more young women will become interested in politics.