By Jeanne Bonner
Two women are vying to hold America’s highest office when President Obama’s term end in 2016 -- Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Carly Fiorina.
But that may mistakenly lead folks to conclude women have made more progress in politics than they actually have.
According to FairVote’s Representation 2020 project, it will take 500 years for women to reach parity with men in elected office in America. Some states have never elected a woman to Congress or the governor’s mansion. And that’s the tip of the iceberg. Women in many states are still trying to get elected as mayors, and not a single statehouse is majority women, according to statistics compiled by the nonprofit group, which is aimed at raising awareness of the underrepresentation of women in elected office.
“There is a naïve sense that if we keep doing the same things we will achieve gender parity,” Cynthia Terrell, who directs Representation 2020, told HLN. “State legislatures are going backwards in terms of the representation of women. And women are poorly represented in statewide offices. We have only six women governors.”
FairVote ranks states on a scale of 1 to 100, according to whether women are as likely as men to get elected. In states with a score of 50 or above, women have an equal chance of getting elected.
States like Georgia and Mississippi, which often lag other states on voting issues, rank at the bottom. On a scale of 1 to 100, Representation 2020 gives Mississippi (which comes in last) a score of 7.
But only one state has earned 50 or above, and that’s New Hampshire (It has a score of 57. That actually means men are underrepresented).
How about states that are generally thought of as progressive, like New York and New Jersey?
Eh. Of the two, New Jersey has the poorer showing, ranking 32nd out of 50 states, with a score of 16.3. New York, meanwhile, ranks 14th, with a score of 23.8.
“A lot of people don’t connect the stats to a real deficiency in our Democratic process,” Terrell said. “They don‘t see the implications in terms of effects on public policy.”
Nonetheless, some people are paying attention. And across the social media landscape, more women are beginning to notice the disparity and are rallying around female candidates while also calling out sexism.
But while on the national political scene, the two female presidential candidates are very visible, officials on the state level say there’s not enough of a pipeline of qualified women running for rank-and-file elected offices.
In Georgia, for example, one political PAC in fact is aimed solely at electing more women to county councils, school boards and sheriffs’ offices all across Georgia. The founders of NewPower PAC, Jan Selman and Heather Fenton of Atlanta, say the dearth of women in these lower offices explains in part why not a single woman holds a constitutional office or represents Georgia in Congress. In fact, as NewPower is eager to tell folks, Georgia has only elected five women to statewide office and five women to Congress -- in two hundred years’ worth of elections.
Selman says there’s an enormous cultural bias that continues to be an obstacle in the U.S. The scholars behind the Gender Watch project at Rutgers University, for example, say female candidates’ likability is tied to perceptions of their qualifications in a way that it’s not for male candidates.
And women see the attacks female candidates face, and they stay away.
But Selman says women also play a role.
“Women don’t step up and run,” she said. “You can’t elect them if you don’t run. So a big part of what we’ve been doing is recruitment.”
Many foreign countries are doing a better job of electing women. In fact, America now ranks 95th in the world -- behind Kenya and Indonesia -- for number of women in Congress. What’s worse, in 1998, it ranked 59th. That’s according to Representation 2020.
It may be because America still has a lot of hang-ups about women pols.
However, experts say there’s reason for some optimism. Selman of NewPower PAC in Georgia said talking about the lack of women in elected office used to be a dead issue.
“Way back when, you could say it and no one knew what you were talking about,” she told HLN. “Now it’s kind of reached a critical mass.”
And that’s thanks in part to Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina.
“It goes back to the old saying, 'you can’t be what you can’t see,'” Selman said.
She said women are taking notice of Clinton and Fiorina -- and taking action themselves.
But according to Terrell of Representation 2020, change will be slow without structural changes like instituting proportional representation rules and boosting recruitment of women candidates by all political parties.