Election 2012 – Year of the Woman?

Many are calling 2012 the “year of the woman.” The phrase echoes the 1992 election, when, among other factors, the US Senate’s controversial handling of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas spurred unprecedented numbers of women to win seats in Congress. The idea today is that because women’s issues, including women’s health and pay equity, are central to the 2012 debate, women may very well determine the election outcome.

As a young professional woman working on election reform, I am keenly interested in the issue of women in politics. My organization, Democracy North Carolina, is part of a non-partisan coalition called NC Women Matter, engaging women to mobilize other women to vote and educating them about the electoral process and voting rights.

Women play a critical role in this election and politics in general, so I find the buzz around the “year of the woman” problematic. Inspired by an amazing talk by Jennifer Lawless of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, I feel it’s crucial to understand the extent to which women actually have political power.

There are certainly things for women to celebrate. For instance, we continue to register and vote at high rates – higher than our male counterparts. In 2008, a record year for female candidates, turnout among NC women voters was 55%. In 2012, a new record number of female candidates are running for office. Women also played a prominent role during the 2012 conventions of both political parties, with women’s issues among those most discussed. In fact, in a ranking of the words most mentioned during the conventions, the word “women” was in the top five, behind Obama, Romney, jobs, family and business. Women were mentioned more than God!

At the same time, women still hold only a fraction of elected offices: 17% of the seats in Congress, 10% of state governorships and only 25% of state legislative seats across the county. In North Carolina, women currently occupy less than one‐sixth of all elected offices, including only 38 of the 170 seats in the legislature (22.4%). In 2012, these North Carolina numbers will likely decrease because new redistricting maps make it harder for many female incumbents to win their races.

When women run for office, they win just as often as men. So why the gender gap? In a report called “Men Rule,” Jennifer Lawless of American University and Richard Fox of Loyola Marymount find that women – regardless of party, race, age or income – are less likely to run for office for several reasons.

First, women are 6 times more likely to have responsibility for the majority of household work. They are 10 times more likely to be responsible for childcare. Second, even when women and men have equal political experience, men are 60% more likely than women to say that they are “very qualified” for public office and women are more than twice as likely to think they are “not at all qualified” to serve. Third, women are more likely to view things like political fundraising, dealing with party politics and negative campaigning as deterrents to running. Finally, women are far less likely to be encouraged to run for office by party leaders or family members.

Yet, when women are elected leaders, policy outcomes are better for everyone. As Senator Olympia Snow (R) of Maine said in this month’s issue of Glamour that women have, “literally changed laws and lives” on issues like medical research, pensions and equitable pay. Studies show that women also do a better job of being non-partisan, something voters across the political spectrum care deeply about.

So, yes, it’s exciting that women pay attention and vote. It’s inspiring that many women have successfully run for office, even lacking support and encouragement. Keep it up! But don’t be fooled into complacency by the phrase “year of the woman.” Let’s work hard every day for the fundamental changes to our democracy and society that increase equity — public financing of elections, fair redistricting, pay equity, worker’s rights, environmental justice, early childhood education, and more. Only by addressing the root causes of inequality will we truly change the political dynamics.

I am a woman and I will vote in 2012.  But I’m also looking forward to the day when “year of the woman” can no longer be used in elections. We have to solve the challenges preventing women from full political participation. Women are leading – in the work force, education, the non-profit sector, the family, the community and beyond. As a nation, we’re out of excuses for failing to increase the capacity of women to secure opportunities to lead in government.

Jenn Frye is the Associate Director of Democracy North Carolina, a non-partisan voting rights and campaign organization (democracy-nc.org) and a member of the NC Women Matter Steering Committee (ncwomenmatter.org).

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