The Election of Women and Women’s Political Empowerment

By Catherine Bolzendahl

The U.S. is poised to witness unprecedented numbers of women engaging in electoral politics in general, and running for political office in particular. By the April 6, 2018 filing deadline, 309 women filed to run for the U.S. House, at a 90% increase since 2016, and a notable uptick in minority women candidates. Although the actual numbers elected are likely to be much lower, these figures are nevertheless remarkable and suggest the potential of one of the wealthiest capitalist democracies in the world to finally join counterparts with 40% or more women in legislature, such as France (39.6%) and Norway (41.4%) or at least to match the European average at 27.7%. The historical reality of American women’s political office holding is, however, quite bleak. Of all the countries in the world, the U.S. is 103rd in women’s legislative presence with 19.6% women, behind Indonesia, Uruguay, and Pakistan. Furthermore, it is particularly important to disaggregate among women elected or running for office, given that reasons for involvement and the possible influence on policy may be highly dependent on how gender intersects with other minority statuses. As a leading advocate for equity, human rights, and democracy, political outcomes in the U.S. elections rarely reflect the diversity of our citizenry. Thus, the recent news is exciting for scholars like myself, who study and support gender diversity in electoral politics, but a lot of work remains.

All sectors of society – corporations, universities, national academies, technology – are seeing the advantages of inclusion and diversity both in terms of more positive cultures, happier workers, and practical outcomes. Politics is no different. Bringing a diversity of voices to the table improves representative policymaking. A strong clue that women think about politics differently, on average, is the fact that the majority of the women running are Democrats, such that 40% of nominees for Democratic seats are women. This partisan gender gap in politics has long roots and has become a stable, and possibly growing, feature of partisan politics. It stems from multiple sources including women’s greater support for social spending, liberal social attitudes, growing labor force presence, and greater familial autonomy. All of these are issues that draw them more toward the Democratic party. Diverse voices across both parties, however, are crucial for good policy-making. For example, it was Republican women who fought to make the 1996 welfare reform act less devastating for poor women, by insisting on childcare, enforcement of child support, and Medicaid coverage for older children and women.

So, how do we consolidate the positive changes we’re seeing and potentially expand them across partisan divides? One answer is some form of quota. Currently more than 100 countries have a constitutional, legislative or party policy commitment to the presence of women. Depending on how they are designed, quotas can successfully increase the numbers of women elected and some research suggests they can weaken gender stereotypes, encourage women to enter politics, and support women’s movement organizing, but they are rarely a panacea. Quotas remain unpopular in many countries considering their adoption, can support essentialist notions of gender, and tend to help only women of majority groups gain office.

Given some of these limitations, I have joined with a variety of scholars in calling attention to the broader concept of women’s political empowerment. My colleagues, Farida Jalazai and Amy C. Alexander, and I developed a theoretical justification for this concept and invited leading scholars from across the globe to interrogate its meaning and application. Our resultant book, Measuring Women’s Political Empowerment across the Globe, looks at women’s global political empowerment as the enhancement of assets, capabilities, and achievements of women to gain equality to men in influencing and exercising political authority worldwide. Following this definition, we observe and acknowledge that nowhere do women hold equal power to men in influencing and exercising political authority. Every country has aspects that have to addressed; even the Swedish “gender utopia” sees fewer women in legislative leadership roles.

In our definition of women’s political empowerment, it is important to note the active and ongoing process it entails. As this record number of women run for – and hopefully are elected to – office in the upcoming elections in US, we must be careful not to proclaim “mission accomplished.” The same inequalities, discrimination, and economic barriers that have led to women and other minority groups’ exclusion from political authority are still very much present. The greater incorporation of women in office, then, will be meaningful to the extent that these gains translate into changes that enhance the assets and capabilities of the women around them. One advantage of this conversation and the recent wave of women running for office and becoming involved in formal politics, is its ability to help us move beyond questions of individual agency, and deal with the systematic marginalization of women as a group from attaining equal levels of political influence, representation, and integration.

The potential gains of such changes are immense. First, competitive, visible women candidates for office increase the political engagement of all women. This is particularly important, because women typically view norms of good democratic citizenship differently (e.g., less narrowly political) and engage in more “private” forms of political activism, which has tended to marginalize them political discussions. Recent public increases in the women running for office then, can contribute to a demonstrated role-model effect by increasing family discussion of politics and getting more adolescent women interested in politics from an early age.  More broadly, research increasingly shows that women’s political empowerment distributes power more evenly between men and women in society as a whole, and can undermine entrenched patterns of gender inequality. The election of women has been clearly linked to increased social investments cross-nationally. The U.S. picture is not so clear, as the efforts to empower women tend to center on self-determination rather than the critical needs of expanded family policies and workplace equity. But as I argued earlier, the situation is beginning to move beyond the debates of individual agency. If changes happen, they will not just come from this election, but will be the outcome of sustained efforts, structural changes, and continuing commitments. The women who may arrive in the next Congress will have an uphill battle, and if an impact of their election is to felt, their supporters and colleagues will need to continue the hard work of getting issues on the agenda and working to re-elect diverse candidates.



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