By Barbara Turnbull on June 08, 2018
Last semester, one of my professors told me that political scientists have a bad habit of hypothesizing really broadly about the nature of our political systems and then hoping those theories “stick”. Though this feels overly simplistic, I am somehow completely on board with the theory that “descriptive representation” can help fix everything -- that is, electing representatives whose identities reflect the diverse identities of their constituents. Descriptive representation means women, LGBTQ folks, and people of color in office. It means we can look at our government and see ourselves represented there. It brings Washington D.C. closer to home. It means issues and policy needs that no committee of white men could have imagined are brought to the table. And it gives more people stake in the process, which is the most fundamental part of our participatory democracy.
Right now, though, women comprise less than 20% of Congress. For women of color, the number is below 8%. One can imagine how this drastic underrepresentation has consequences for all governmental and political processes, from the content of bills introduced in Congress to the very tenor of political rhetoric. It can get pretty disheartening.
However, it’s exciting to see that once elected to office, women legislators provide more than just symbolic representation -- they effect change in the institutions. Through a research seminar I took this spring, I analyzed the content of Congressional committee hearing transcripts and produced a paper that indicates that Black congresswomen are particularly strong advocates for issues of race and gender during hearings. These findings support and complement the work that RepresentWomen is doing, all of which serves to further demonstrate how critical it is that women policymakers (especially women of color) be at the table.
Though D.C. politics can be exciting and glamorous, I believe that local politics are often far more reflective of what people want from their government. I know, at least anecdotally, that in my home state of Vermont, the women on my city council and in our tiny state legislature work tirelessly on issues like education funding, raising the minimum wage, and ensuring paid family leave, among many others. The primary reason I’m drawn to RepresentWomen is because of my internship with Emerge Vermont, an organization in my home state that trains women to run for local office. My experience with Emerge was deeply gratifying and inspiring. I was immersed in a field of work that, while new to me, I could tell was crucial for a stronger democracy. Emerge Vermont prompted me to think critically about what “representation” means, and for whom. By reflecting on the importance of local politics, I gained a new urgency for identifying and combating the challenges women face when running for and holding elected office.
By working with RepresentWomen in this more quantitative side of the field, I hope to be able to use data to continue mapping out the complex intersections of race, gender, and politics. Above all, my personal goal with this internship is to work hard and to help (in small part) break down the institutional barriers that prevent equal access to policymaking and leadership.