Women comprise more than 50 percent of the U.S. population, but their political integration as voters, activists, and elected officials is a relatively new phenomenon. Not until 1920 did the Nineteenth Amendment extend voting rights to women, and not until 2008 did a woman—Hillary Clinton—win a presidential primary. When assessing women’s political participation, therefore, it is important to examine not only current levels of women’s political activism, but also the circumstances under which they have come to enter the political sphere, and differences in participation at the mass and elite levels.
Women’s Emergence In U.S. Politics
Women’s political exclusion, as well as their eventual participation, can be linked to their family roles. Throughout U.S. history, a clear division of labor has characterized household and family arrangements. Traditionally, men worked outside the home and, therefore, served in a more “public” role; women occupied a more “private” role, as the caretakers of the home and family. This gendered division of labor historically resulted in men’s entry into, and dominance of, the public world of politics, and women’s almost total absence from the political sphere.
As early as the women’s suffrage revival in 1890, though, women began to rely on their distinct roles in this private sphere to justify their entry into politics. Government corruption and party machines dominated late nineteenth-century politics. Susan B. Anthony and advocates of women’s suffrage argued that women possessed the characteristics needed to take the corruption out of politics. Women’s exclusion from politics meant that they lacked party loyalty or relationships with party bosses. In addition, the characteristics that women’s roles in their families demanded—benevolence, morality, selflessness, and industry—could serve the public interest. The suffrage movement’s affiliation with the temperance movement also highlighted women’s traditional roles as strengths. Because women bore witness to the trouble that liquor wrought in the private sphere, they were well-suited to encourage its prohibition. Women’s adherence to these roles also served as an impetus for their involvement in the moral reform, antislavery, and women’s rights movements.
By the 1960s, the relationship between traditional family roles and women’s equality and political integration became more tenuous. Political activists, such as Betty Friedan, and scholars, such as Carole Pateman and Susan Okin, focused on dismantling the gendered conceptual framework of private and public spheres. They noted that men were not independent; their public sphere entry and success relied on women’s familial care. Advocates of women’s rights, therefore, argued that the private realm of women’s lives must be made part of the public discourse. These efforts aimed to break down the dichotomy and integrate private-sphere issues, such as childcare and domestic abuse, into public-sphere policy debates. Over time, women’s issues, often championed by female legislators, have gained prominence in national political discourse and debate.
Mass Participation: Women’s Levels Of Political Activism
In general, despite their relatively late entry into politics, women are as active as their male counterparts. Women outnumber men among registered voters, and in every presidential election since 1980 and every congressional election since 1986, women have voted in equal or higher proportions than men. In 2008, for example, 66 percent of eligible women turned out to vote in the presidential election, compared to 62 percent of men. Furthermore, women sign petitions, attend public meetings and rallies, and write to elected government officials at rates similar to those of men.
Two noteworthy gender differences in political participation, however, merit acknowledgment. First, women are less likely than men to contribute money to campaigns. In the presidential election of 2008, women made up 44 percent of Democrat Barack Obama’s donor base and 28 percent of Republican John McCain’s donor base. Second, women are more likely than men to participate on behalf of Democratic candidates. Since 1980, women have been at least four percentage points more likely than men to favor Democratic presidential candidates. The largest gender gap was in 1996, when 54 percent of women, compared to 43 percent of men, voted for Democrat Bill Clinton. Compared to 49 percent of men, 56 percent of women cast a vote for Barack Obama in 2008.
For both women and men, the central predictors of whether a citizen participates politically are levels of education, income, and politically relevant civic skills. The differences in women’s and men’s political activism, therefore, tend to result from disparities in the factors that facilitate participation and not from their sex.
Elite Participation: Women’s Presence In U.S. Political Institutions
By 2010, it was difficult not to see women in U.S. politics on television, in the newspaper, or on the Internet. Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, was the Speaker of the House, and former U.S. senator Hillary Clinton served as secretary of state. Also, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, the first female Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, remained in the news. Prior to 1978, no woman whose career was not linked to the death of her spouse ever served in the U.S. Senate. As of 2010, seventeen women served in the Senate and seventy-five occupied positions in the House of Representatives. The 1992 “year of the woman” elections, alone, produced a 70 percent increase in the number of women serving in the U.S. Congress.
Undoubtedly, an evolution toward the social acceptance of women running for office occurred in the last half of the twentieth century. However, women remained underrepresented in U.S. political institutions in the early twenty-first century, especially given their levels of participation at the mass level. When the 111th Congress convened in January 2009, 83 percent of its members were men. Large gender disparities are also evident at the state and local levels, where more than three-quarters of statewide elected officials and state legislators are men. Men occupied the governor’s mansion in forty-four of the fifty states, and ran city hall in ninety of the one hundred largest cities across the country. The low numbers of women in politics are particularly glaring when placed in context. Whereas the 1980s saw steady increases in the percentage of women seeking elected office, and the early 1990s experienced a rather dramatic surge, the last several election cycles represent a plateau.
Women’s numeric underrepresentation in U.S. politics raises grave concerns over the quality of democratic governance. More women in positions of political power confer a greater sense of political legitimacy to the government, simply because it better reflects the gender breakdown of the national population. The inclusion of women in electoral and legislative processes also increases the likelihood that policy debate and deliberation includes women’s views and experiences.
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