Friday, December 2, 2011

Are you willing to run?

Inspirational female reformers officially began the fight for women’s suffrage in the 19th century. In 1848, the attendees of the Seneca Falls Convention created “The Declaration of Sentiments.” The Declaration acknowledged that “[h]e has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice… [and] [h]aving deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.”

Even before women secured the right to vote, Montana selected the first U.S. Congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin, to represent their state. Three years later, in 1920, women finally won the right to vote. Americans, it seemed, were on the road to halting oppression of females and ensuring a voice—and a place—for women in politics.

One hundred-sixty years after the suffrage movement began, female candidates from both major U.S. parties finally emerged as strong contenders for both executive offices of the land. Today, women represent only about 17% of Congress, and Americans have yet to elect a female U.S. President or Vice President. Thus, women still lag behind men in American politics. In fact, we lag behind half of the world’s countries in terms of female representation in the federal legislature.

We know that women are capable of leading and affecting positive change—and that women how to do it well. In fact, women may lead better than men. Studies show that female-lead companies in the U.S. achieve more financial success than those with male CEOs. Despite these achievements, far fewer women than men consider running for public office.

So, what is keeping American women away from U.S. politics? Why am I still waiting for Americans to elect a female U.S. President and choose legislative representatives that mimic the proportion of men to women in our country? Well, that’s just it. I’m waiting for someone else to do it because I’m not willing to do it myself.

I participated in student government during all four years of my high school career, and I campaigned for elected positions during each of those four years. Despite winning my elections in only two of the four years, I found campaigning an exciting experience at the time. With my strong family support system and a bit of the naivete of a younger person, I figured I had nothing to lose.

For me, the interest in leadership continued throughout college, but instead of running for president, I ran for less demanding positions in multiple organizations…or I just waited to apply for positions that required interviews and applications rather than a public voting process. My approach provided me with the voice I sought, and it helped me to avoid many of the downsides associated with higher-level positions…especially the grueling task of the school-wide election process.

Until now, I never thought much about why I chose not to run for the presidential positions. In retrospect, though, I think that I lacked the confidence to run. There was always someone else who seemed like a better fit for the job. I bet that I was not the only woman to think that way, for, the most political organizations that I participated in during college were lead by male presidents. Our student government, one such organization, was lead by men during all four of my undergraduate years.

Despite this realization, though, the more I learn about, people, law, the world, and the treatment of women, the scarier it becomes to consider something like an election for public office. At this point in my life, I'm ready to support brave women who willing to take on the task, but I'm not ready to give up my private life and submit to the emotional rigors of a national campaign.

According to Jennifer Lawless, Professor of Political Science at American University, fewer women perceive themselves as qualified to run for public office and we continue to recruit more men than women for such positions. Many women also prefer male bosses to female bosses, and cite gender stereotypes and intra-gender competition to support this preference. Furthermore, despite the growing population of female students in higher education, fewer women than men serve as student body presidents. This trend carries to the elite universities traditionally known for educating many of our influential government leaders.

At a recent UN program entitled “Women's Political Participation – Making Gender Equality in Politics a Reality,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and fifteen other high-level government leaders signed a "Joint Statement on Advancing Women’s Political Participation." It’s going to take more than a few signatures to make the changes that will bring women on par with men in the realm of American politics. We need to encourage more women to run and to provide them with the mentorship necessary to navigate the American political system. We also need to motivate women by changing American female perceptions of self-worth and confidence. The ideal female candidate can not—and probably should not—be perfect. But, until we start treating female candidates like people rather than sex objects, mothers, pets, or iron maidens (See Carlin and Winfrey, Have You Come a Long Way, Baby? Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Sexism in 2008 Campaign Coverage, 60 Communication Studies 326 (2009)), many women may continue to avoid public office.

Still, I wonder if support, mentorship, and generally respecting women is sufficient. In Kay and Shipman’s article about the successes of women in business, the authors proclaimed that “[a]ll those right-brain skills disparaged as soft in the roaring '90s are suddenly 21st-century-hot, while cocky is experiencing a slow fizzle.” In the political world, though, I think that over-confidence might be a pre-requisite—at least for winning (or surviving) an election. If that’s the case, then ladies, I think it’s time we got a little cocky.

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