The Importance of the Women's Vote

It is hard to know what social change taking place today will be the most significant in the long term. It is probably foolish to speculate on the lists of candidates for serious consideration, but raising one issue to the fore now might well affect the outcome in the next century: Women. It took almost a hundred years for women in the United States, and many other nations around the world, to get the vote once they started organizing in the 18th century. It is likely that -- even with models of women in the public sphere firmly in place, even with formal promise by most nations and international organizations of note -- it will take many years to change the conditions that most women live under most of the time. And the status of women is directly linked to the strength of their families and communities.

One of the simplest steps in this new age of democracy is getting women to vote. It doesn't necessarily take millions everywhere when electoral districts that are relatively evenly divided can be won by only a few votes. Even though all women don't share the same views, they do share many, and when they are enough of the vote, candidates will compete for their support. When women vote they also encourage the few women who have braved that path before them and been elected to office, and remind political parties of their interests and their influence.

Many factors can intervene in getting voters to the poll in any given election, but generally speaking, the less-well educated, the less-comfortable in speaking out, and the less familiar individuals are with the mechanics of casting a vote they are, the less likely they are to participate in an election. This is true for both men and women, but women are far more likely to fall into those categories. Learning how to vote -- and something about the issues and the candidates in any given election -- is much easier than changing one's status. While it is not the ideal of a fair representation in elected office, it is a lesson that would pay great dividends.

I am not advocating rushing the unwilling or the uneducated to the poll, but most political issues are not rocket science, and most adults can understand the basic choices to be made if given an opportunity to hear the pros and cons of the issues. Women, particularly, will not vote if they don't feel "qualified" to make a choice.

Much of this came home to me recently, when I attended a conference sponsored by an NGO (ELS Independent Research Center) and the League of Women Voters of the United States in Azerbaijan, an ancient Eurasian land bordered by the Caspian Sea, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Russia. In modern times, it was a Soviet state with a strong memory of its two and a half years as a democracy after World War I. It carries the best of the Soviet experience moving forward in its commitment to secular government (it is a majority Shia Muslim nation with a mix of Sunnis, Christian, Jews -- some of whom go back 2,500 years -- and Zoroastrians). It has a legal commitment to equality for women. As one of oldest oil and gas producing countries in the world, it also has resources. It exists in a dangerous part of the world, but has strong ties to the West and is closely allied to Turkey, the United States and even Israel.

The purpose of the conference was to promote community-level education of women on public issues and their increased participation in voting. It was held in Ganja City, near an uneasy Armenian border, a five hour drive from the capital city Baku. Most of the participants came from the Ganja region, which bears a closer resemblance to old Russia (if not more ancient times when it was a stop on the Silk Road), than Baku which looks more and more like a Western city where the ancient past is not quite so visible. Transportation in the country is improving, but there did not seem to be much travel between regions either way.

The conference brought together representatives from NGOs, academia, and a number of people -- men and women -- representing the Executive Authority as well as local and municipal governments. The purpose of the meeting -- to raise the issue of women's participation in elections -- was not initially shared by all attendees. Some feared that increasing the women's would decrease the influence of men, but appreciation for the significance of the need to create conditions for equal participation grew substantially over the weekend, in part, I would like to think, after hearing about the history of women's suffrage in the United States when early fears of the terrible things women might do if they had the vote faded quickly.

The communiqué from the conference called for women to get involved in parliamentary elections at all levels as observers and poll workers, as well as encouraging women to work in campaigns and - of course -- to run for public office. Raising expectations that they can achieve equality is an important step, but before it can be taken by more than a few exceptionally strong candidates, experience suggests that there is a need to build self-confidence of women for whom the public sphere is foreign territory and overcome the fear of voting.