Perhaps the torch is passing to a new generation of political women — but whose arms are outstretched? Highly visible names in national politics — Bachmann, Giffords, Gillibrand, Haley, Palin, Pelosi — mask the reality that progress in electing women has stalled.
Almost three decades after Ferraro’s pathbreaking candidacy, only one other woman has won a spot on a major party’s national ticket, and we still haven’t seen our first female president or vice president. The number of women in Congress fell from 90 in 2010 to 88 today, the first decline in 30 years. In state legislatures, the number of women slipped by an alarming 81 nationwide after the last election, a full percentage point drop. Women hold less than 17 percent of congressional seats, just six of 50 governorships and not even a quarter of state legislative posts. We have yet to break the 25 percent barrier at any level, let alone achieve parity for a group that’s more than half the U.S. population. And if we’re going to see a woman in the White House in our lifetimes, we’ll need to see more women in these elective offices first.
This isn’t just about numbers, though. Women bring distinctive life experiences to politics, and research shows that female officeholders change both the policy agenda and the governing process. Whether the issue is equal access to credit (Bella Abzug) or education (Patsy Mink), family and medical leave (Marge Roukema), or inclusion of women in medical research (Pat Schroeder and Olympia Snowe), female lawmakers have long been recognized as powerful voices on behalf of women, children and families.
The next election year, 2012, could be pivotal in bringing new female faces into the political picture. With the reapportionment and redistricting following the 2010 census, we’re likely to see major shifts in both Congress and state legislatures as longtime incumbents retire, current lawmakers confront new constituencies and new seats are added in key states. (It’s no coincidence that the last giant increase in female candidates occurred in 1992, another post-census election.) At least eight of the 33Senate races in 2012 will feature open seats. And recent election cycles have shown us that the electorate is volatile and primed for change. Incumbency is no longer a near-guarantee of victory — and in some cases, it may even be a negative. These forces give newcomers an unparalleled opportunity to break into the system.
But the election of more women won’t happen on its own. In a study of state legislators conducted by our organization, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, almost twice as many women as men said they decided to run only after it was suggested to them, while nearly twice as many men as women said the decision to run was entirely theirs. We frequently observe that men are apt to wake up, look in the mirror and think, “I’d make a great state senator!” Female candidates more often need to be recruited.