In honor of International Women's Day (and the Oscars victory of Kathryn Bigelow), I repeat a column that ran here last year, and which first appeared as "Women in Power" in Together Magazine, a Brussels bi-monthly. Although yesterday's Iraqi vote will give a serious boost to women's numbers among the world's elected, not much has changed in the United States of political power women, unless you count "professional" wrestling's Linda McMahon's candidacy for the Senate a positive development.
Image: "Women Rule Social Media?" Sarah Chong, Penn Olson.
A mini-quiz to begin: Who was the first female US Presidential candidate?
a. Eleanor Roosevelt
b. Hillary Clinton
c. Geraldine Ferraro
d. Shirley Chisholm
e. None of the above
- it’s actually a trick question. Most people know that Hillary Clinton
was the first woman to run for President. Except she wasn’t. In fact,
the mostly forgotten Victoria Woodhull (from as far back as 1872) takes
that honor - her running mate, black anti-slavery campaigner Frederick
Douglass, is better remembered. Appropriately enough, they were
candidates for the Equal Rights Party.
“You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” - the 1960s vintage "Virginia Slims" cigarette adverts (not Fatboy Slim’s album) - have provided clichéd headlines for thousands of articles on the progress of women’s rights during the past 40 years. In the American political battleground, ‘Women in Power’ remains a largely underachieved goal, with notable exceptions. More accurately, we might say ‘Women For Power’, as their vote is increasingly crucial to winning elective office for candidates of either sex.
LONG TIME COMING
wasn’t until the 20th century that women were enfranchised, let alone
taken seriously enough to campaign in the mainstream parties. In the
Democratic Party, Shirley Chisholm, the first black Congresswoman, ran
unsuccessfully for President in 1972. In 1984 another Democrat,
Geraldine Ferraro, became the first woman Vice Presidential nominee of
a major party, but met the same fate as Republican Sarah Palin in 2008.
Hillary Clinton, though she got further than other American women,
didn’t invent female Presidential politics. In fact, the US comes out
rather poorly in some metrics: Rwanda is number one in elected women,
while Belgium is number eight. The US ranks a lowly 57 in terms of
female members of parliamentary bodies (for women in elective office,
it is 70th in the world). Women have fared somewhat better in the US
Senate and states, however - there are 16 women out of 100 senators,
and women are governors in 11 of the 50 states. [Update 3/8/2010: I guess we have to subtract Sarah Palin - we know where she is - and Kathleen Sebelius, now Secretary of Health, a key portfolio].
In the Presidential succession lineup, Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House of Representatives comes after the Vice President. Pelosi wields considerable legislative power, which was strengthened in the 2008 elections. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also highly placed in the succession order, as was her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.
Rice wasn’t the first female Secretary of State; Madeleine Albright was, a decade earlier. And Clinton, who during husband Bill’s tenure preferred a more overtly political role to the honorific duties of ‘First Lady’, was not the first Presidential wife to dabble in matters of state. Edith Wilson was catapulted into an unofficial ‘secret Presidency’ when her husband Woodrow suffered a stroke after WW I, and Eleanor Roosevelt survived her husband Franklin to lead the US delegation at the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
THE FEMALE FACTOR
we’ve established that American women have been politically active for
some time, even before they won the right to vote in 1920, but what has
it got them? Under-representation, for one thing: only 25 per cent of
US elective office holders are women, though they comprise 52 per cent
of the population, and there’s also the notion - often misconstrued -
that there is a ‘women’s vote’, that is, they vote monolithically, and
that women vote for women.
The 2008 campaign was instructive:
though most attention had been on Hillary Clinton’s prospects, she had
barely lost the Democratic Party nomination when the Republican Party
came up with its own woman - Sarah Palin, (then) Governor of Alaska. John
McCain’s choice of Palin as running mate was both a bold move to corral
the conservative base and a blatant bid for ‘the women’s vote’. All
manner of supposedly disappointed ‘Clinton women’ were trotted out to
testify how they were now going to vote Republican.
And we all know how it ended - despite the absence of Hillary Clinton on the Democratic ticket and Sarah Palin’s seeming omnipresence on the Republican side, Barack Obama carried the vote of women by a wide margin. It may be that their vote was decisive - for years, millions more women have voted than men, well beyond their numerical superiority in the population. In the end, it was their preference, especially among younger and unmarried women, for Obama’s stand on issues - and not gender solidarity - that swayed women in 2008.
IT’S THE POLICY, STUPID
Beyond elections, women in the United States struggle to gain influence and power relative to their numbers. It’s mostly an uphill battle, but some sectors stand out. Women now make up 14 per cent of the US Army, and 21 have attained the rank of general. In the State Department, Hillary Clinton presides over a diplomatic corps that includes more than 50 women of ambassadorial rank.
Barack Obama didn’t win the Presidency by campaigning as the African-American or mixed-race candidate. In fact, he won by transcending racial pigeonholing. Obama’s victory, Hillary Clinton’s close-run thing, and Sarah Palin’s flop should show American women that - more than race or gender - it’s the policy, stupid. 'You’ve Got a Long Way to Go, Baby' - but at least the route to power for American women is no longer the ‘Road to Nowhere’.