Much was made before the 2008 Presidential election of the potential impact of the African American or youth vote on the election. Pundits claimed that both voting blocks would "carry" the election for Barack Obama. But what about women voters? The truth is that they came out in full force for Obama.
Women strongly preferred Obama to McCain 56-43% whereas men split their vote 49% for Obama and 48% for McCain. Women have voted in larger numbers than men since 1980. In the 2004 Presidential race, nine million more women than men voted and when final results are tallied it is expected that we will see even more women voting in this past election. In addition, a study by the Women's Campaign Forum showed that women tripled the amount of their donations compared to the 2000 Presidential election.
Still, with all the impact that women clearly had on the Presidential election, why is it that the United States still ranks 70th in terms of women in elected office? Even with the hard fought campaigns of Hillary Clinton in the primary and Sarah Palin, women have achieved a relatively dismal amount of seats. Women comprise 52% of the population in the United States yet women only hold a quarter of elected offices. While some celebrated the fact that New Hampshire just became the first state to have a majority of women legislators in one of their chambers (the state Senate), the question to really ask is why are they the only ones? Congress is comprised of just 17% women (many cheered that this number went up in this election cycle from 16%) but that meager rise is disconcerting at best.
Women gained suffrage in 1920 through the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Today, women's representation in state legislatures ranges from the low end of 10% (South Carolina) to a high of 37% (New Hampshire and Vermont.)
Some might say, well, why is this important? The answer is twofold. First, research on state legislatures nationwide by C.S. Rosenthal has shown that women legislators are 50% more likely than male legislators to "build issue coalitions," "pull people together" and "get people involved." The study notes that 59% of women legislative committee chairs earn above average ratings for inclusivity and power-sharing. Second, women tend to have unique perspectives on issues such as child care, elder care and health care as frequently these issues, in many families, are falling still disproportionately to women.
So what is holding women back? Part of the problem is we need to encourage more women to run. Studies have shown that some women do not run due to the time commitments of both a campaign and seemingly endless fundraising once in office. These demands can often be difficult to juggle for women with young children. When I first ran for a local position in Lower Manhattan, I heard a few comments from women that shouldn't I really be staying at home as I had just given birth to my twins. Sadly these comments are all too common. In addition, negative campaigning has acted as a deterrent for many women who fear the onslaught of personal attacks that seem to go hand in hand with campaigns. Lastly, many of the elected positions mean lengthy travel with months away from home to either the state capitol or Washington, something that can be anathema to mothers with children or elderly parents at home.
How do we combat this? The best way to fight these obstacles is to fight them head on by organizing women to band together to encourage and support other women to run for office. We saw to great effect Obama's use of grassroots organizing, the internet and micro targeting of voters. Women in communities that want to increase the number of women representing them need to form grassroots level groups to help support qualified women candidates through fundraising and get out the vote networks. By helping women fundraise, we can minimize some of the time constraints that can unduly burden a candidate or elected official. PTA's, mother's groups, soccer and baseball leagues can be powerful tools in a campaign to help spread the word. Many states have groups that help women candidates fundraise, seek endorsements and learn to run a campaign. Most importantly, women need to harness the incredible advantage they have in terms of overall women voting, and support qualified women that are running for office.
We can learn a lot from the Obama campaign about how a candidate can emerge victorious based on an incremental ground swell of grassroots support among communities across the country. The apparatus and model is in place. Now we women have to mobilize it.