By Cynthia Richie Terrell on July 27, 2016
With the convening of the Democratic and Republican Parties, we see greater diversity in their national delegations and leadership than what we currently have in Congress. Women hold less than 20 percent of the seats in the Senate and House, making the United States 95th internationally in the number of women elected to national offices.
Imagine if the Senate or House required gender parity for each state? Before completely dismissing this idea, consider this: Both parties already have statewide and national rules requiring gender equality. We need intentional action to level the playing field in the same way that Title IX has helped address inequality for women in education and athletics.
For decades, political parties have been quietly addressing gender inequality and - spoiler alert - it's working. Little-known rules adopted by both the Democrats and Republicans ensure or encourage an equal number of men and women in convention delegations and in leadership. Both parties boast gender-equal leadership committees and gender-equal executive committees, and the memberships of the Democratic and Republican National Committees also have gender-equal components. These intentional steps to gender parity show what is possible on a national stage.
From 1932 to 1960, the Democratic Party delegation averaged 12 percent women, while the Republican Party fluctuated between 6 and 18 percent. The introduction of gender equality rules opened the door for women to run and serve in different capacities within the parties. Gender parity does not happen by accident: The parties require it through rules defined in their charters or bylaws.
Gender parity rules adopted at the 1980 Democratic convention explain why the delegates in Philadelphia are equally divided between men and women. The Democratic delegations from host states Pennsylvania and Ohio reflect this commitment.
On the Republican side, the party encourages but does not require states to send gender-equal delegations. The Ohio GOP, however, takes its commitment to gender equality a step further. Its rules state that it will "guarantee equality of representation (plus or minus one) between men and women." Conversely, Pennsylvania has no gender equality rule, and that was reflected in its delegation; of the 71 delegates headed to Cleveland, only 18 were women.
When national and state parties set diversity goals, we see real progress. The election of 1908 was the first time a national convention had female delegates, with five women serving as delegates or alternates to the Democratic convention in Denver. Fast-forward 100 years to the 2008 Democratic convention in the same city: 50.1 percent of the delegates were women. And with more than 40 percent of the delegates representing minority communities, the DNC touted it as the most diverse convention in party history.
The gender parity at this year's conventions would not have happened without intentional action by party leadership. Women comprise 51 percent of the electorate, so it just makes sense to require that half the convention delegation also be women. But by that logic, shouldn't half our elected officials be women? Pennsylvania and Ohio both currently boast the highest historical percentage of women in their state legislatures. But those historic highs are 18.6 percent and 25.8 percent, respectively - and, sadly, these statistics align with a 24.6 percent national average.
Without intervention by political parties and lawmakers - and public pressure - we simply won't achieve gender parity in our lifetimes. Nearly all countries ranked higher than the United States in gender parity have laws or party rules establishing some degree of intentional action relating to gender parity. Countries such as Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have some of the highest levels of female representation in their legislative bodies because of voluntary party quotas. Chile has established a requirement that no party's nominees for legislative office can be more than 60 percent one gender over the course of four coming elections. That's a huge step forward for equal representation in that country.
We are four short years away from the centennial of women's suffrage. It took 96 years from the time women first cast their votes for our country to see the first woman presidential nominee from a major political party. At the current rate, it will take more than 96 years to see gender parity in legislative bodies across America.
Our national political parties are just one example of how intentional action leads to meaningful progress for women's representation. It's time to expand these efforts by adopting reforms that blaze a clear path toward gender parity in American politics.