Why Women Don't Run for Office

Mitt Romney's choice of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as running mate has serious implications for women: He's a staunch anti-abortionist (even in cases of rape or incest), wants to abolish Title X funding, and has voted at least four times to defund Planned Parenthood. But will this 'war on women,' as Democrats like to call the Republican Party M.O., inspire more women to run for office themselves? Unfortunately, probably not.

In large part, that's because that old political aphorism, "politics ain't beanbag" -- referring to the tradition of below the belt shots that may characterize a political contest -- is truer than ever. Already we've seen it in this race: Romney's new TV ads titled "America Deserves Better" aim to cast doubts about President Obama's character. The President, of course, has a doozy of his own, implying in his "Priorities USA" ads that Romney is responsible for the death of a factory worker whose wife's cancer progressed after Bain Capital, under Romney, shuttered his factory and ended his health insurance.

We have a system that seems to require candidates to take shots at one another. Though veteran political reporter Sam Donaldson once said "Only the amateurs stay mad," more and more, we're doing just that: staying mad, not moving on, locking ourselves into a perpetual cycle of political blood feuds. Payback's a bitch? No. These days, it's an obligation. And that has many women who might otherwise be inclined to join the fray saying no thanks.

It's not because we are softer than men. It's because we've seen the persistent inequities. Though Romney seems largely impervious to fallout from his bad behavior and endless gaffes, it's hard not to wonder if a woman in his position -- if he were, say, Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann (whatever you may think about both women) -- would receive the same treatment. Just imagine if a female candidate declared, as Romney did, "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there." She'd be ripped to shreds. Romney's introducing Paul Ryan as "the next President of the United States," meanwhile, was laughed off. If he were a woman, he'd be called unfit to run a household, never mind the country -- or worse. Think about it: What would happen to a woman who succumbed to John Boehner's serial blubbering? She would wear the tag "weeper of the House" to the end of her political days.

In her 2007 book, If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear, Melinda Henneberger wrote that most women voters think the election process is such a turnoff that they can barely stand to tune in at all. And that's just from the sidelines. If we can't even tolerate watching politics, how can we be expected to take part? In 2010, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi was attacked in $65 million worth of Republican ads -- 161,203 total spots in all, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. She was portrayed, among other things, as a cackling witch. Bachmann, meanwhile, lands the cover of Newsweek with a photo that makes her look manic and a cover line that dubs her, "The Queen of Rage." Maybe Mitt Romney has cankles; it's probably certain that Newt Gingrich does. Will we ever hear about them? Unlikely.

Though the number of women elected rose throughout much of the '90s, after the 2012 midterm contests, it dropped for the first time in more than 30 years. We've got a meager showing of women in Congress that's holding steady at best: 17 women in the Senate and 73 in the House represent more than 50 percent of the population. Most studies say there are some clear reasons for that. Compared to male office seekers, women are less likely to run because they don't think they're worthy, they don't get enough encouragement, and they don't think they can win. We can at least contemplate adding to that list a reluctance to wade into the toxic swamp that is American politics. Meanwhile, at just 16.8 percent of House membership, women's legislative representation ranks 78th in the world, tied with Turkmenistan.

Scrape away enough of the muck, and you could find hope that the current nastiness is simply a reflection of the times -- angry campaigns looped with an angry electorate. Maybe when things get a little better, reason will return and we'll find a way to work together on problems that are undermining the country and threatening the future. More likely, however, mean politics is here to stay. One reason is: it works. Studies show that Americans have never been more disconnected, disaffected, and downright dumb when it comes to the issues. It takes a lot more effort to research each candidate's record and positions than it does to listen to what an opponent says about them.

There is little doubt -- particularly in the current climate -- that gender specific coverage and attacks will remain a factor in political races. The question is whether being a woman running for office is something that the country needs and fairness demands. I think it is, and does. As Romney said last January, "I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that's the America millions of Americans believe in. That's the America I love." What does he mean by that? Who knows. What's clear is that things have got to change around here.