Women in politics: How the US compares with the world

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Twenty years ago, Hillary Clinton, then first lady, stood before the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and declared that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”

Her call for equality on September 5, 1995, resonated throughout the conference and the world.

“It was pretty amazing,” said Terie Norelli, who was then a New Hampshire women’s rights advocate attending the conference with 14 other women from the state and more than 30,000 women from across the globe. Less than a year after Clinton’s speech, Norelli successfully won a seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, the third-largest legislative body in the English-speaking world.

“We came together with the intent to agree on important ways that we could improve the status of women and girls around the world…and women in power and decision-making was one of the platforms,” Norelli said.

Now, as Clinton contends for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, alongside businesswoman Carly Fiorina on the Republican side, the numbers show that women have a long way to go to achieve that equal role in political representation in the US. The country’s 19 percent female representation in Congress falls below the global average, with the US ranking behind 94 countries, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, including a plethora of developed and developing countries including China, Tunisia, Uganda and Afghanistan. The IPU uses a ranking system based on percentages that places the US 76th internationally, but because of tied rankings, 94 other countries register as having larger percentages of female representation in their parliaments.

At Hillary for NH’s Manchester office, women were baffled to find out that the US is far from leading the world on getting women into political office.

“Is that true?” asked campaign supporter Kate Corriveau, 31, her brow crinkled. She’s been active in New Hampshire politics since President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2011.

In Manchester, “Hillary for NH” posters and a countdown calendar to the Democratic primary greet organizers as they walk into the office, just one of the Clinton campaign’s seven offices in the state. On the morning of August 25, volunteers and staff hugged and mingled after one of many campaign events as primary season creeps closer. Post-it note reminders for meetings, endorsements and door-to-doors marked nearly every day on the calendar.

“It’s only going to get more intense from here on out,” said Deputy Press Secretary Meredith Thatcher. “After Labor Day we’ll really see a ramp-up in everyone’s effort, including ours.” The Clinton campaign announced in recent memos that it plans to engage more than 3,000 New Hampshire residents in small gatherings and meetings just like this one in Manchester. Thatcher said that the campaign will continue to open “another couple” offices ahead of the primary, the first in the country, still five months away.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” said Thatcher, the room’s chatter rising around her, referring to the fact that Clinton’s dominant position in early polls has waned as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders gains strength.

Thatcher said 36 state organizers are working to combat Clinton’s declining poll figures and a media narrative that Corriveau perceives as becoming more skewed against women. Donald Trump is just one of the Republican candidates with a track record of sexist comments.

“It’s the classic kind of stuff that we’ve seen again and again. I mean, it’s kind of BS,” said Corriveau, frustrated, when recounting some of the quotes about women in recent campaign coverage.

In April, Trump shared a Tweet reading, “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” in just one glimpse of his thoughts on women.

But misogyny in the US presidential election has a long precedent.

In the country’s 239-year history, no Democratic or Republican woman has ever made it through the primaries to become either party’s nominee in the general election. With a female presidential bid on both sides of the aisle, 2016 could be the year that changes.

Far from the top

In her groundbreaking speech 20 years ago, Clinton pointedly said, “Women must enjoy the rights to participate fully in the social and political lives of their countries.”

Her primary target was the conference’s host country, China, based on the presumption that Clinton’s home country stands as a model for gender equality.

But progress toward full political participation for women has been markedly stagnant in the US itself in the last 20 years. America hit a historic high after the 2014 election, sending 19 percent women to Congress. But that marks less than a nine percent increase since Clinton’s speech, when women made up 10 percent of the national legislature. On average, that’s less than a half percent increase every year, equivalent to adding roughly four-and-a-half congresswomen every two years.

And China? Its National People’s Congress currently has 23 percent female leadership: four percent higher than the US. Other countries that outperform the US include Iraq, Afghanistan and Uganda, among 82 countries the World Economic Forum ranks higher in terms of the proportion of women in their national legislatures.

Clinton herself called the full participation of women and girls, “the great unfinished business of the 21st century” soon after the start of her campaign in April. “And not just in far away countries, but right here in the United States,” she said. But the international comparison framing the US’s poor performance surprises even the experts.

Sociology professor and international development consultant Jennifer Rosen recalls reading in The New York Times about the first-ever female majority parliament in Rwanda. She started searching the international rankings and was shocked.

“None of the countries that we would assume would be at the top were at the top,” Rosen said. “So I compiled an original dataset to answer this question, like, why is that? This isn’t the theory that we’re so used to reading and teaching.”

Rosen found marked differences between how developed countries and developing countries approach gender equality in politics.

“It seems like in the Western world it has been an incremental approach,” Rosen explains. “In emerging democracies and post conflict societies, gender equality has become this sort of model of progressiveness and a way to gain international approval… [In] Afghanistan and Iraq, one of the conditions for getting international aid was that they institute gender quotas for government.”

Gender quotas are a form of affirmative action with the goal of recruiting more women into political office. They can implemented in a variety of ways, from constitutional provisions and legislative mandates to voluntary nomination guidelines within political parties. And quotas can determine either the number of seats reserved for women in a country’s congress or parliament, or the number of female candidates put forth in each election.

“They really do create rapid change,” said Laura Liswood, the secretary general of the United Nation Foundation’s Council of Women World Leaders. Liswood, 65, has seen female leadership grow across the globe since she co-founded the Council in 1996. It had 10 women presidents and prime ministers as qualifying members then. Now, it has almost 60.

“They’re somewhat blunt instruments…[but] basically what you see is that very few countries will get to critical mass, which is 25 to 35 percent [female] representation, without some affirmative mechanism.”

Quotas aren’t a magic wand. Their impact varies depending on countries’ types of electoral system and level of development, but, on average, quota systems significantly boost female representation. Rosen’s research found that, from 1992 to 2010, countries with nationally mandated quotas had 2 to 5 percent more women in their legislatures than countries without quotas. 126 countries overall have implemented a quota system of some sort according to the Quota Project, which leaves the US in a small global minority of countries without affirmative policies to promote gender diversity in government.

Stagnant politics

Experts also cite factors like the cost of political candidacy, the first-past-the-post electoral system, intensely personal attack ads and stressful work-life balance as uniquely American barriers that demotivate women from running for office. The task of changing these long-established trends on a national scale often seems out of reach.

“In the political climate, there’s too much contention over even the simplest things,” said Elyse Shaw, research associate at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. So much so that the conversation about gender equality in political representation often isn’t even broached.

“I usually don’t find myself thinking of totally unrealistic hypotheticals, so I never really thought about it,” Congresswoman Lois Frankel (D-FL) said with a chuckle when asked about her stance on quotas in a phone interview. “I think that would be highly unlikely that that is something that we could get.”

“If you think about when women got the right to vote, it’s been less than 100 years. Society moves very slowly, government moves very slowly…it’s just taking us time to catch up,” Congresswoman Mimi Walters (R-CA) explains.

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But many activists and researchers aren’t accepting this reasoning. Cynthia Terrell, the founder and development director of the non-profit organization FairVote, certainly isn’t willing to. She jumps into a passionate defense of FairVote’s push for gender parity in Congress — that is, 50/50 representation split between men and women — when questioned about its realistic possibility.

“The current strategies are so tiny and infinitesimally slow, I don’t know why they think it’s a good strategy,” she said, throwing her hands in the air in exasperation. “The only chance we or generations to follow have in getting there is to name it and be clear about it and to not be pessimistic.”

FairVote and other grassroots organizations, research groups and training programs like Running Start and She Should Run are picking up the slack that politicians, embroiled in partisan divisions and re-election campaigns, have left behind. They’re trying to create a critical mass of women ready to run for office in each new election cycle.

“In order to get anywhere, we need people to be able to envision it,” Terrell said. “We almost have the most obligation to start at the city level to change the structures, to encourage the young women, and to train them to do whatever it takes to create the candidates who are going to be getting elected to the state and federal level in 15 or 20 years.”

Small victories

There are places where Terrell’s vision is becoming a reality. Areas like Minneapolis, Cambridge, Massachusetts and the San Francisco Bay Area are implementing rank-choice voting and multi-member districts. These electoral changes create a less adversarial government and elect far more women and minorities, said Terrell. State legislatures today are on average 24 percent female, which, while still not particularly bragworthy, is 5 percent higher than the US congressional average.

And certain states are far outpacing that. New Hampshire has the highest level of state and local representation by women, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy. In 2008, New Hampshire elected a female majority — 13 of 24 seats — to the state senate for the 2009-2010 session.

“You already had several women in leadership,” former New Hampshire representative Terie Norelli said of the years leading up to that monumental time. “So I think what you had in 2009 with the majority women senate chamber, the first and only one ever in the country, was the benefit of a critical mass…and that starts with recruitment and then mentoring and support.”

The large, 400-member state house in New Hampshire leads to a never-ending recruitment season that exposes many people to political office. This gives more and more women the chance to try out politics, said Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat. And then once in politics, those women have a support network of strong role models and mentors within those institutions to help them adjust and ascend.

“Role models have been very important, both in elected office and in helping me learn the ins and outs of local state senate races,” Hassan said. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), the first female governor of New Hampshire, played an important mentorship role for Hassan and many other New Hampshire women. She campaigned up from the state-level to become the first woman elected governor and senator, and ever since has been encouraging other women to run.

“There are more women that are getting some sort of political experience and people are becoming more used to seeing women in those positions,” Shaheen said. Since its historic highs in 2009 and 2010, women are back in the minority in the New Hampshire state senate. But knowing what gender equality in politics looks like is half the battle.

“We can’t underplay the extent to which people imprint what’s possible,” Terrell said. Young women and girls all over the country are watching and internalizing what their political leaders say and look like. Seeing women become governors, senators and even presidents shapes what girls see as possible for themselves in years to come.

“For young women and young men, it’s essential to have these role models,” Liswood said. One of Liswood’s first experiences with women world leaders was interviewing Iceland’s first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who was in office for 16 years. During that interview, Finnbogadóttir recounted a trip she took through Iceland eight years into her presidential tenure, where she visited a number of schools.

“She was talking to the children, and one of the things she noticed was that the children under eight all thought only a woman could be president of Iceland. The boys had to ask, could they be president of Iceland? Because they had never seen a male president,” Liswood smiles. “That’s the positive impact of a role model.”

As candidates begin to blast the airwaves with ads, interviews and debates, the opportunity for a female role model in the presidential field has never been more open or more needed. The 2016 election is still more than 400 days away, but countless impressionable eyes from around the globe are already fixed on the trials and triumphs of its female candidates. As Hillary Clinton said in 1995, “The time is now. We must move beyond rhetoric. We must move beyond recognition of problems to working together, to have the common efforts to build that common ground we hope to see.”