Arrington: We Need More Women in Politics

A balanced ballot empowers everyone.

by Katherine Arrington | 10/29/20 2:00am

The 2020 election is the first time I am eligible to vote in a federal election, and as such, it also marks the first time I have religiously followed politics. I was very eager to cast my vote, but after opening up my mail-in ballot, something struck me: There were 28 names on the ballot for Hanover. Of those, 11 were women. The other 17 were men — a 40-60 split. And these numbers are actually on the high end for women — a Pew Research Center study shows that women make up merely a quarter of those who state that they have campaigned for election.

My ballot is not an anomaly. Data from the nonprofit RepresentWomen show that women constitute a mere 25% of the Senate, 23% of the House of Representatives, 29% of statewide elected executives, 29% of state legislative seats and exactly 0% of all presidents and vice presidents. Of the voting members of Congress, only 23% are women — and that is a record high. For the country that is supposed to be a “City upon a Hill,” that is a striking number.

We must encourage women to take up space on the ballot. We have to empower girls from a young age and teach them that politics is not just for men. We have to come up with solutions to the social barriers many women face in getting elected, educating voters on the benefits of women in politics and on their immense capability for leadership. We need to address financial constraints that may prevent some women from campaigning, creating public campaign funds or proposing legislation mandating equal pay.

This is essential, because women in politics have different priorities. Research has illustrated a positive relationship between the election of female policymakers and policies that prioritize family, health care, living conditions and ethnic and racial minorities. In addition, research from the National Democratic Institute found that women are more likely to work across party lines, be responsive to the concerns of their constituents, emphasize health and education, actively promote peace between countries and encourage citizen participation in democracy by voting and communicating with public officials.

Furthermore, female public officials are, on average, more likely to raise issues specifically related to women’s rights. Public officials must make difficult choices about which issues to focus on; studies show that women in Congress are more likely to prioritize and sponsor legislation relating to women than are their male counterparts. Both male and female legislators are shown to believe that female policymakers have drawn more attention to how policies impact women; studies also show that women have increased political access to those who are economically disadvantaged, and how women of color in government work promote gender and race concerns. In short, female policymakers’ experiences as women make them more likely on average to consider legislation and government from traditionally overlooked perspectives and advocate for these groups.

Female policymakers are also thought to have helped make government affairs more transparent, promoting the making of political decisions in public arenas rather than behind closed doors. They are more likely to champion public involvement and political awareness.

When women are adequately represented in politics, these are the benefits that we can expect. And in this current period of change and uncertainty, these traits are ones we need in our government officials. But as long as this underrepresentation of women in politics persists, the U.S. will not reap these benefits. 

What is keeping women out of politics? A study by the Pew Research Center showed that Americans who are white, male and college-educated disproportionately run for office, while women make up only a quarter of candidates. Researchers at the Brookings Institution have found that there is a gender gap in political ambition — men are more confident about running for office. Women view campaigning as more rigorous, are less likely to be recruited, have less freedom in work and family and are less likely to view themselves as “qualified.” Women are also less likely to view elections as fair regarding gender. And they are not wrong. Even when they place their names on the ballot, they must deal with sexism. For instance, shifts in voter demographics in the 2020 election suggest that gender may have played a larger role than anticipated in the 2016 election.

There are also many structural challenges to electing women. Potential female candidates are 15 times more likely than men to be primarily responsible for childcare and six times more likely than men to be primarily responsible for housework. This sense of responsibility in the home often prevents them from running.

Incumbency is also a huge structural disadvantage. The American political system very strongly favors those who are already in office in reelection, and since most incumbents are men, women must often wait for those incumbents to retire before they can win a seat.

As a country, we must take steps to remedy these issues. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimated that it will take a century for the U.S. to have equal representation for women in Congress; that is too long. We have to act now to empower girls, educate voters, address financial constraints, remove social barriers, create public campaign funds, write new legislation mandating equal pay and actively consider term limits. But most of all, we cannot settle — we have to keep carrying the torch that suffragettes first picked up in the United States hundreds of years ago and fight for true representation.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” That does not just include the people filling out the ballots. It encompasses the names on the ballot as well.