For the past several decades, the number of women serving in appointed and elected offices has seen steady progress on both a national scale, and in North Carolina. However, locally it appears that slow and steady did not win the race.
In recent years numbers have fallen back. This year, fewer women are running for and serving in elected offices than they were five years ago. Despite representing 54 percent of the registered voters in the state, women hold less than 25 percent of all appointed and elected offices. The numbers decline even further when looking at positions of leadership with spending or policy-making authority.
It’s true. The past two decades have seen women achieve many milestones in North Carolina Politics. Elizabeth Dole won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2002, and Beverly Perdue followed six years later being elected governor. In roads have been laid, but the total number of women serving has changed little over the last twenty years and the recent dip is cause for greater concern.
All is not lost, however. The main reason behind the lack of female representation is not overt discrimination or structural deficiencies in the electoral or appointed process. Instead it’s a simple lack of a steady pipeline of women entering the races to seek the positions at all. When women run, women win. In 2014, only 25 percent of candidates across North Carolina on the ballot were women, but 63 percent of them won.
At the national level, the number of women candidates has continued to grow steadily. But in order to ensure that we don’t experience a similar downturn for the country overall, and to reverse the one in North Carolina, we must make this a priority.
The past several decades has seen efforts to correct underrepresentation relegated to a few underfunded nonprofit organizations that recruit or train women to run for office, political parties whose primary mission is winning office (not gender equity), and some token efforts by government to establish commissions or study groups to examine the problem.
We’ll never make any measurable progress so long as that is the case.
The solutions need to be more comprehensive and sustained. High schools, colleges and universities need to take proactive steps to reverse the trend of young women losing interest in politics as they enter adulthood.
A 2013 study revealed that young women who take just one political science course in college are 40 percent more likely to consider a career in the public sector. Academic advisors need to be increasing exposure to this possibility that may not have otherwise crossed their mind.
High schools and colleges must also increase exposure to women candidates and elected officials through class visits, forums, and formal mentoring. Mentoring specifically is an important reciprocal relationship between the officeholder and the mentee.
Also, groups such as the Women’s Forum of North Carolina, the Institute of Political Leadership and North Carolina League of Women Voters have done great work to directly or indirectly encourage women into public leadership. But the task of doubling women candidates will require these groups to partner with one another and pool resources toward the common goal.
Secondly, these groups should consider affiliating with colleges and universities to increase exposure to women while they’re young. Research demonstrates that women have a longer planning horizon for entering appointed and elected offices. Few women wake up one day and decide to run for office.
Political parties are not exempt from responsibility either. Research demonstrates that party officials do not approach women to become candidates to the same degree as they do men. Sometimes the power of suggestion can mean the difference between a candidate entering the race, or watching from the sideline.
Finally, we must all acknowledge that underrepresentation of women is doing a disservice to our state and our country. The media must make coverage of this issue a priority and that does not translate to simply needing more coverage of Hillary Clinton or other prominent candidacies. In fact, this can give the misguided impression that women occupy a more prominent space in politics than they actually do. Coverage of races without marquee names or races without any women would be much more beneficial in the long run.
This is not, nor should it be, a partisan issue. The sooner we acknowledge the need for accurate gender representation, the sooner we can focus on the most pressing issues of our time.
The announcement by Hillary Clinton that she is running for president in 2016 has unleashed considerable speculation on how she will campaign and her chances for winning. One of the most prominent questions is whether she will make being a woman the centerpiece of her campaign. The dangers of doing so for Hillary Clinton are great.
Recent polling by Pew, Gallup, and Rasmussen suggests that Americans are more ready than ever for a woman president and that almost 20% of likely voters would vote for a woman candidate for president simply because of her gender.
However, according to the Pew Research Center and Meredith College polls, the qualities Americans associate with effective political leadership in general and with female leaders in particular simply do not match up with the popular perception of Hillary Clinton.
In terms of positive leadership qualities, respondents said that women leaders are more honest, compassionate, and open to compromise than are men. Likewise, in terms of negative leadership qualities, women political leaders are perceived to be less ambitious, arrogant, and stubborn than are men.
Even before the revelations that Clinton used her private email account for official government business, there have been questions about her honesty. During her 2008 campaign, Gallup found that over half of Americans believed “honest” and “trustworthy” were not words that applied to her. Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul has already announced that he will make Clinton’s character a major part of his campaign strategy.
Women are often stereotyped as more compassionate than men, but in terms of campaign politics, the ability to understand and connect with citizens is very effective. This is why we often see candidates on the campaign trail eating hot dogs or rolling up their sleeves to have a beer with locals. Similarly, Clinton appears to be attempting to rebrand herself as someone who can relate to the average person by eating at Chipotle or spending time with her granddaughter, but the jury is still out given her perception as elite and aloof. It was Mitt Romney’s failure to overcome this perception that many credit for his loss in 2012, and voters may resent this characteristic even more in a woman.
Most Americans report wanting their political leaders to use compromise more to address problems and women are considered by voters to be more natural compromisers. Hillary Clinton has recently spoken on the importance of compromise to address partisan gridlock, but many voters remember her dogmatic stands on health care during her husband’s administration, as well as other partisan positions she has taken.
While not possessing the positive characteristics associated with women leaders, Clinton also possesses some negative traits associated with men leaders. Voters historically have been skeptical of politicians who seem too ambitious and willing to do anything to win the presidency. Women are often perceived as entering politics to fix problems, not gain power, but Clinton has been regularly excoriated in the press for being “pathologically ambitious,” going all the way back to her husband’s time in the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.
Although those close to Clinton often comment on her personal warmth, it is her perception of being arrogant and condescending that dampens enthusiasm for Clinton among some voters. Her comments about not staying home and baking cookies made during the 1992 campaign or her testy responses during the Benghazi hearings fuel this perception.
Related to the perception of arrogance is that Clinton is very stubborn, a negative trait most associated with males. A supporter of the Iraq War, Clinton went years without talking about her position on the war despite sharp attacks from the left. Likewise with the email controversy, Clinton has yet to offer a clear explanation of the reasons why she failed to follow protocol even while it may be hurting her support in polls.
Put simply, Hillary Clinton is more associated with leadership traits Americans dislike in men than with traits they like in women, creating the possibility that running as a woman will backfire for her.