On #ElectHer: The progress of women in politics

On March 15, the Department of Politics and the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program will host Brandeis’s first #ElectHer Conference, where female-identifying students will be trained on how to run for student government or political office. This event illuminates the importance of elevating women in politics and will extend support to the women surrounding us, from our peers to our mentors, when they decide to enter the political arena. While the #ElectHer workshop focuses on the impact women can have in local politics, it represents a broader issue: the shared struggle of women deciding to enter the political world. We want to highlight the history of women in electoral America, what politics looks like for us currently and finally, despite progress having been made, the work that is left to do.

Women’s electoral roots in the United States and historical context play a key role for women in office. With the rise of first-wave feminism in the 19th century, women in electoral politics established a foundation for their successors. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention was the first women’s rights convention in U.S. history, launching the important discussion of female suffrage. With the incremental integration of American women into politics, the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, granting white women the right to vote. Women of color were left in the dust and did not begin to gain suffrage until 1965. 

Despite this setback, political strides were made. In 1938, Crystal Dreda Bird Fauset became the first black woman elected to a state legislature in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Patsy Takemoto Mink, whose daughter came to speak on campus last semester, was the first Asian Pacific Islander woman elected to state legislature in 1962. As the stigmas started to diminish throughout history, the diversity of women running for office became more noticeable. In the midst of their differences—ideology, race, sexual orientation, political background—these female politicians share the difficulty not just of holding political office but also getting elected. It’s no secret that navigating politics has historically been (and continues to be) male dominated. The effects this phenomenon has on potential female candidates are especially present today. 

In 2018, a record number of women ran for office, broke barriers and won. Debra Haaland and Sharice Davids became the first Native American women elected to Congress, Kyrsten Sinema became the first openly bisexual person elected to the Senate, Kristi Noem became the first woman to be elected governor of South Dakota, and Ayanna Pressley became the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. And women’s electoral success has not been limited to these high-profile cases. Across the country, first-time candidates declared their candidacies for offices of all levels, causing 2018 to be designated another “Year of the Woman,” an homage to women’s electoral successes in 1992.

But this success has come in spite of real systemic barriers to women’s involvement in a political atmosphere built by and for men. Voters are more likely to favor “masculine” characteristics like confidence, power and strength on security issues over “feminine” ones like compassion, ability to collaborate and strength on family issues. Fewer educational opportunities and lower workforce participation decreases the likelihood of running for office. Socialization of women and girls reinforces traditional gender roles and limits their own perceptions of leadership potential at a young age. These have played a role in the paucity of women running for office, but they are not concrete. The results from 2018 show that efforts to expand representation are succeeding, as women are stepping up to serve at unprecedented levels. 

Despite substantial growth, the future of women’s political participation is still in need of further progress. Understanding the gender gap in political ambition and its impact on female participation should inform reform efforts. Resistance doesn’t always require substantial commitment and concentration. Efforts towards enhancing the number of women in politics can be achieved through simple support and encouragement to budding female leaders. 

Studies have demonstrated the importance of proactively supporting women in their political pursuits. Those who are encouraged to run for political office by others are more likely to consider running and run for political office. Given lower feelings of qualifications among women, progress can be found simply in uplifting the work of women and encouraging women to own their accomplishments and qualifications. We invite all members of the Brandeis community to join us in this practice of uplifting and supporting women. 

Brandeis University’s #ElectHer Conference seeks to start a tradition of greater community support to female leaders. We encourage all women and allies to attend the March 15 workshop from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the International Lounge to learn more about running for political office and progressing women’s political ambition. Interested students can register through: https://brandeis.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_71ERCEiTZiRa9y5.

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