Decades after Eleanor, Equality Still Eludes Women In Politics

Hillary Clinton places her hand over her hand as she walks to the podium to address the Children's Defense Fund's Beat the Od
Hillary Clinton places her hand over her hand as she walks to the podium to address the Children's Defense Fund's Beat the Odds celebration at the Newseum in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

When VP candidate Tim Kaine introduced Hillary Clinton for her concession speech, he said Hillary deserves high honor for winning the popular vote in a nation that has made it uniquely difficult for a woman to be elected to office.

Eleanor Roosevelt was my godmother. My mother was her friend and worked as a full-time administrator of a New York nonprofit benefiting children. It was always perplexing to me to see the disparity between our society's low expectations of women and my experience of the leadership shown by these two women, my role models.

Of course Eleanor was the leading voice for advancing the role of women in politics in the 20th century. I'm sure she'd be thrilled to see Hillary's accomplishments, particularly over the past 15 years.

In October 1945, Eleanor wrote about women in politics, "they need not function as a minority group unless they allow themselves to be pushed aside.... If women want to take part in their local, state, and national governments today, they can do so with complete equality. The only thing they have to do is to prove that they can obtain the votes."

Hillary obtained the votes. But seventy years later, sadly, equality remains elusive.

In May 1954, Eleanor was promoting her book Ladies of Courage, which contained stories of women who held positions in and under the Republican and Democratic national committees. Her goal was to encourage women to consider these roles, but she conceded the obstacles, admitting that politics was still a man's world.

That same month, she wrote a column updating the nation on the progress of the Equal Rights Amendment benefiting women, which was being discussed by the House Judiciary Committee. Eleanor observed that equal treatment is not accepted in our society in practice, and added, "I doubt very much whether it ever will be."

And indeed, the amendment would go on to be discussed and voted on by Congress and the states into the 1970s, but ultimately was never ratified. How could it have been, with men then (like now) holding the vast majority of elected seats in state legislatures, just as they did (like now) in Congress?

Our nation's founders asserted "that all men are created equal." We know in their use of the word men, the founders did not mean women, nor people of color.

The education sector in which I work is committed to critical thinking and the study of history. We recognize the gaps between the soaring aspirational values of the words of our founders and the corrosive realities of inequality and injustice. It's a tragedy for our nation that 250 years later, we have yet to fulfill those aspirations.

Last year a student at the college where I work wrote her thesis on the impact of the low percentage of women in federal and state elected office. Adrianna Taeko Perry reported that women make up only a fifth of Congress, a fifth of mayors of major cities, and a quarter of state legislatures. She found that each juncture in the political process is less accessible to women than men. The status quo of majority male representation has led to serious barriers to women having a sufficient voice and vote on issues such as economic equality, contraception, abortion, healthcare, education, childcare, and the safety and welfare of women and families.

Women's rights are human rights: That was Eleanor's view before the slogan became associated with Hillary Clinton, from her speech at the 1995 UN Conference in Beijing. For representative democracy to work and succeed, our nation needs equal and diverse representation in our elected offices across race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender.

I agreed with President Obama when he voiced a suspicion that a great number of men in our country are uncomfortable at the sight of a strong woman leader. In a news story about hidden sexism this election season, PBS NewsHour reported that in the Democratic primaries, Clinton lost the overall male vote to Bernie Sanders by large numbers in many states.

Then in November, the election's exit polls confirmed that men overwhelmingly voted for Trump -- marking the widest gap between men and women in at least half a century -- and more white women voted for Trump than Hillary.

It's clear that breaking down patriarchal power structures will require more of us to accept women as their leaders, and more women to contend to be accepted as leaders.

Adrianna Taeko Perry wrote in her thesis, "Given that women's access to these rights are frequently being questioned and challenged in the majority male legislatures, more women need to be represented in the legislatures so that their diverse experiences and opinions can help form policy." She concluded, "Women's increased presence in elected office is positively connected to an increase in legislation affecting women's lives and interests."

We need many more women in elected office to see and shape our laws, policies, and regulations through their lens; and to achieve a reduction in patterns of neglect and violence, not only of and against women, but also of and against all of the weak and underrepresented communities in our society.

In her concession speech, Hillary said, "We are all equal in rights and dignity." Speaking to women of all ages, she added, "Nothing has made me prouder than to be your champion. Hopefully we'll shatter that glass ceiling sooner than we think."

One thing that's clear, Hillary boosted the expectations of young women far beyond what Eleanor Roosevelt envisioned in those early decades of this essential movement.