Female Representation in Congress

>> Monday, December 22, 2008

I read an interesting piece by Matt Yglesias on the level of female representation in parliaments across the globe. The US clocks in at a solid 17%. That earns us the outstanding position of 71st out of 188 behind such models of gender equality like Pakistan and...Iraq. Well Iraq has a quota for electing women but still i dont think that gets us off the hook. He has some opinions about why this might be and centers them around the lousy husband theory. His main point though is that because women are more progressive than men in this country that inequality in female representation is a sign of weakness among the progressive movement. It is an interesting point and one that should be addressed.

Iraq elects more women than the US

Here is a cool graph from Swivel that shows the level of representation among mexico, pakistan, iraq, and the US. Yglesias uses one that compares the US to other western democracies plus japan, new zealand, and australia. The results are not pretty. Yglesias explains his theory of how we ended up here,

My understanding of the evidence is that, interesting, trouble winning elections is not a significant barrier to women getting elected to congress. Women who secure a major party nomination do, on average, just as well as men. The difficulty is that women are less likely to run for office. There are a few causes of that, but the clearest are that women are less likely to have a spouse who supports their political ambitions and women are less likely to be recruited for office by political parties.

This is, I think, a large and under appreciated problem for progressive politics. Most progressives in the United States are women. Therefore, if women are systematically underrepresented in the pool of candidates (which they are) the progressive talent pool gets shallower relative to the progressive pool. There are other considerations of equity to worry about here, of course, but people on the left should recognize that it’s also very much a practical problem. I’m not sure exactly what can be done about the asshole husband issue (men in the audience — don’t be an asshole!) but the candidate recruitment issue is something that can and should be the subject of deliberate action.

Before diving into the Us case i think we should address the other democracies that have better representation. The thing to note is that many of these systems operate based on party list and pr systems. that means that the voters are voting for a party and the party can simply declare how many women are going to be represented. There is a reduced focus on the individual. I suspect that if the us had party list and proportional representation the number of women elected would be much higher, maybe not 50% but at least 30. Now on to the US...

What Yglesias should have compared if he wants to talk about progressive politics is the level of female representation among democrats. By expanding the data set to include the republican side of the aisle he introduces a variable that could confound the point he is trying to make. For example we could have 57% of dems in congress be women. That would be very high. If however, we had only 10% of republicans in congress be female we would see a much lower average of female representation but not an under representation of progressives.

In fact there is a big discrepancy between the levels of female dems versus republicans elected. According to the CRS report on Women in Congress(pdf),

A record 91 women serve in the 110th Congress: 75 in the House (55 Democrats and 20 Republicans) and 16 in the Senate (11 Democrats and 5 Republicans). A record 95 women were elected to the 110th Congress, but four died: Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-CA), Jo Ann Davis (R-VA), Julia Carson (D-IN), and Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH).

There were 233 Dems in the house leaving the percentage of female democrats at 23.6% in the house. Even that lowly number puts the republicans to shame. The Gop has a meager 9.9% percentage of female representation in the house. In the senate the dems had 11% and the republicans 5%. So while the dems have done significantly better in electing female members they have by no means managed to find equality in the levels of representation. So while the data used to prove it was not the best, Yglesias' general point about the hindrance of progressive politics stands, if we assume that the women elected are in fact progressive.

One restriction on female representation is a failure of recruitment. This means that the political parties are simply not recruiting enough women to run for political office at the levels required to achieve equality. This is true even among democrats although the numbers suggest the republicans are so far behind the dems that it drags down the numbers. The Center for American Women and Politics released their study of women who ran for election as the major party nominee in 2008. In the senate,

Three women candidates (1D, 2R) are incumbents: Susan Collins (R-ME); Elizabeth Dole (R-NC); and Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Four (3D, 1R) are challengers: Vivian Davis Figures (D-AL); Kay Hagan (DNC); Christine O’Donnell (R-DE); and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). No woman is a candidate for any of the five open Senate seats.

In the house,

One hundred thirty three women are major party candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives in 38 states, with one primary runoff involving a woman still to be decided in Louisiana. This number includes ten woman-versus-woman races, nine involving incumbents facing challengers and one for an open seat. In addition, three incumbent women and one challenger are candidates for delegate to Congress from the District of Columbia, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa.

Among the candidates, 67 (50D, 17R) incumbents are running for re-election. 11 (9D, 2R) women are running in 10 districts with open seats. 55 (37D, 18R) are running as challengers.

When considering the strength of the recruitment in both parties we have to look at the races they are recruited for. Not every race is competitive and running a women in a race that any one of that political affiliation is expected to lose is not a sign that women are being taken seriously. The dems ran women in races where they had a chance to win, the republicans are not. look at the open seat numbers in the house and look at the races in the senate. The dem's women ran in races where they could win.

There is one thing that might make females less attractive to political parties when they look for recruits, fund raising ability and self financing. In Parties, Sex and Money Barbara Burrell addressed this issue finding that instead of a weakness in fund raising women were actually equal with or out performing men.

If we look at the most recent election, the 2004 campaigns, we find the same story. Women were 17 percent of the major party candidates in 2004 for the U.S. House of Representatives counting primary and general election candidacies. But they were 11 of the 50 top candidates in terms of receipts or 22 percent. (They were 50 percent of the top ten.) Allyson Schwartz (D-PA13) who raised $4,597,032 and Arlene Wohlgemuth (R- TX17 ) who raised $2,586,253 were the top fundraisers respectively in open seat and challenger campaigns.

As has been shown in the past, women general election candidates in 2004 facing a major party opponent as a group raised more money on average than their male counterparts not taking into account incumbency or party status. They raised an average $876,000 compared with $812,000 for male contenders. Figure 1 shows average receipts for both 2002 and 2004 and illustrates the increase in campaign financial resources, and the greater surge in the financing of women’s campaigns.

The only exception seems to be a male versus female open seat race. In these races the women are consistently our raised by the men. This may be largely due to part effects as in the past republicans have generally raised more money and the majority of women running in open seats have been women.

So democrats do need to increase the number of women recruited. Why are fewer women recruited? In the book, Women, Politics, and Power By Pamela Marie Paxton, Melanie M. Hughes they outline several factors that they believe have contributed to the lack of female representation. One of these is cultural.

The cultural attitude that hinders women in this country comes from several sources. A view that womens place is in the home, that women are less qualified emotionally, that women are unable to represent effectively because they have to raise children. Traits identified with men are also more closely identified with leadership such as assertiveness, dominance, competitiveness, independence. There are a number of these types of attitudes that conform to a general opinion that men are better in politics than women. In the US, the general attitude is that men are better in politics than women. This leads to a negative feeling about how worthwhile it is for a women to run for public office and is also corroborative of the unsupportive husband theory. Men traditionally have a less progressive view about the ability of a female politician.

The good news about cultural restrictions is that they seem to be lessening as time goes on. The current level of representation in the senate is higher than ever and represents 50% of the women to ever serve in the body. The level of women in congress is increasing, although at a very slow rate. The bad news is that we still have to include the republicans. The biggest hurdle to female representation seems to be on the republican side where they have constantly lagged well behind the dems as the numbers above illustrate. I am not sure how that ever changes as they are the socially conservative party and the negative cultural views largely coincide with socially conservative views.

In their 2005 paper, Women in Office, Lawless and fox found that,

...well-qualified women are less likely than their male counterparts to consider running for office. And when women do think of running, they are more likely to be interested in local level positions. As far as the second question is concerned, women’s lesser interest in office holding is linked to a number of factors: lower levels of annual income, less external support for a candidacy, more demanding household obligations, and self-perceptions that they are not qualified or likely to win. A clear finding that emerges across all of these results is that men in this eligibility pool have more comfort and greater freedom when thinking about seeking office.

After reading through the research there are two things that appear to be holding women back in the US. The first is the conservative views regarding women that create a paucity of republican women who run for election. until republicans run women at the same rates as the dems we are never going to see anything close to equal representation between men and women. That is a big uphill climb. The second big thing holding women back is women themselves. Specifically their attitudes about being capable of running and winning. The answer to solving the problem about greater female representation in congress is to highlight the fact that not only can women run as well as men but they can win.

A lack of confidence is something that can be fixed through socialization. It also underscores the importance of female candidacies like Senator Clinton's. Despite some of the ridiculously sexist things said about her i think her candidacy will prove an important point in women's ability to see themselves running and winning. Anecdotal evidence supports this. This will in turn increase the number of females we see in the US congress.


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