Political representation is defined as the election of officials, who then stand in for, and speak for a group of their constituents in the legislature, for a set period of time. Unfortunately, moneyed interests, the threat of being "primaried" by the tea party lunatic fringe, and other factors have dismantled this process. Over the last few years, and certainly for most of the Obama Administration, Congress has had a low approval rating - so much so that they have been nicknamed the "Do Nothing" Congress. These elected officials have been voting in lock-step with each other, and often opposite the opinions and desires of the American people. Consider the public's desire to implement some degree of regulations on gun use in this country (In 2012, 54% wanted more strict laws, and 90% wanted to expand background checks), and Congress's unwillingness to even deliberate on the matter. Thus, the questions have to be asked - Who are these congressional members really representing? What values do they represent? Who do they really speak for? What issues do they advocate for? What segment of the American populace do they look like ?
One merely has to take a glance at the collective members of the United State Congress to realize that there is, and has always been, a glaring problem. That problem has to do with representation, and not just political representation. In short, Congress, like The Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts, is not an equal-opportunity employer, and yes #CongressSoWhite. Women make up 50.8% of the U.S. population but only 19.4% of the current 114th U.S. Congress. In fact, Congress resembles a frat house where young intoxicated men are replaced with middle age men, and the type of policies voted upon, discussed, and proposed by the recently out-going, also Republican controlled Congress, reflects the group think that occurs with members of a fraternity. In 2010, Senate Republican Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, made a statement and put out a call for action for members of his party -- who are overwhelmingly white, male, and old -- to make their primary focus obstruction in order to ensure that President Obama would not serve a second term. They Tried It, but failed.
However, their actions and historic "obstructionism" have succeeded in impeding the passing of progressive policies such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was unanimously voted against by all Republican Senators, with women among them. And it is this same level of obstructionism that has allowed the United States to be one of the few nations that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEADW), despite the document being signed in 1978 by President Carter. Out of 194 U.N. member nations, 187 countries have ratified the document. When considering this, one has to be realistic about whether the election of Senator Elizabeth Warren, or 2016 Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton, to the U.S. presidency, would bring about the passage and ratification of these proposed legislations. The realistic answer would be NO. What we should have learned after the past 6 years of the Obama Administration - and his failed attempts to "reach across the aisle" and utilize bipartisanship in order to pass legislation, instead of having to continuously rely on Executive Orders - is that we have to set our eyes on far more than the Presidency if we want to effect change. And the first step of this process will have to involve addressing the issue of disproportionate representation. Here we will discuss what this looks like in terms of gender.
So, what does the current representation of women in Congress look like?
1992 was dubbed the "Year of the Women" due to a surge in the number of female candidates running and eventually being elected to office. However, this exalted year did not change the status quo greatly, as the problem of disproportionate representation has persisted. 4 out of 11 women running for the U.S. Senate were elected, and those victors included Senator Barabara Boxer (D-CA), who recently announced that she will be retiring from the U.S. Senate in 2016, at the end of her term. 24 females were elected to the House during the Year of the Women, and this election increased the percentage of women in the House from 6% to 11%. 1992 thus remains a high mark in terms of the rate of growth assessed by the number of women elected versus incumbents. While 24 new women were elected in 1992, 13 were elected in 2010, and 19 in 2012. However, there are some small signs of progress. In the short period of 2010 to 2015, the number of women who have served in the U.S. Congress went from 260 to 307.
2013 was also celebrated as a year of high achievement for women in Congress, and again the 2015 114th Congress shows signs of small progress. Women make up 19.4% of the 114th Congress, compared to 18% of the 113th Congress. Further, 79 women were members of the House of Representatives, accounting for 17.9% of the body. While the numbers in the Senate have remained constant with 20 - or 20% - of the members of the Senate being women. Still, the following 2013 infographic shows how small this "progress" is in the larger scope of things by illustrating the problem of disproportionate representation.
In terms of inclusion of women of color there has also been minute progress. In the 113th Congress, women of color only made up 4.5% of the total members of Congress, and 30.6% of women serving in Congress. While the 114th has seen a slight increase, where women of color make up 6.2% of the total members of Congress, and 31.7% of the women serving in Congress. Again, the following 2013 Infographic helps to convey that these nominal increases will not be enough to mitigate the problem of disproportionate representation.
For much of US history, women were not a part of the legislative system or process. This did not change until the 20th century (144 years later) with the success of the women's suffrage movement, where women of color like Sojourner Truth and Mary Church Terrell were actively involved. The 19 th Amendment passed in 1920 officially granted women in the United States the right to vote. However, the right to vote was not safeguarded for women of color, particularly Black women in the Southern United States, until the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act; which the predominantly White and male, U.S. Supreme court is currently dismantling. In 2014, the court invalidated key parts of the legislation. A critical legislation that many sacrificed, suffered, and gave their lives for.
In 1917 Jeanette Rankin of Montana, a Republican prior to the beginning of the parties "Southern Strategy", became the first woman in Congress, where she served in the House of Representatives. In 1916 she noted that, "I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won't be the last".3 She went on to serve again from 1941-1943, but did not win re-election due to her anti-war stance, where she voted vote against both World War I and World War II; proving that she was ahead-of-her-time; speaking out against the military industrial complex, well before it had grown to its current size and influence. In terms of feminist leadership, Rankin was a former lobbyist for the National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and her speaking and organizing efforts help to secure the right to vote for women in Montana in 1914. In her campaigns she ran as a Progressive, and during her time in Congress she focused on social welfare issues.
While many remember and praise Ronald Reagan, despite the horrific result of Reaganomics, there was another stage star from California, who made a greater impact on policy and U.S. society, and she was Helen Gahagan Douglas, a New Deal liberal. Gahagan served in the House for three terms, from 1945 - 1951, where she spoke about a range of topics including: equal rights for women, civil rights for African Americans and other people of color, labor rights and the protection of the American worker, food subsidies (all prior to the 1964 Food Stamps Act being signed into law by President Lydon B. Johnson), affordable housing, unemployment insurance for returning GIs, a revitalized farm security program, as well as income-based taxation for farmers and small business owners. Where President Johnson needed to be pushed to act on removing the barriers to the ballot for African Americans in the South, Helen Douglas openly attacked the practice of poll taxes. 4-5 Her political viewpoint was progressive in ever since of the word. Even more remarkable was the fact that she was a White women of wealth and status, who focused on the intersectional issues of the working class and women of color. In fact, many of these issues that she championed remain relevant today, and are those that were widely discussed in the Occupy movement.
Julia Hansen, served as a Democratic Representative from the state of Washington from 1959-1975, was the first woman to chair an Appropriations subcommittee. Appropriations committees are of a great deal of importance, in that they are responsible for setting specific expenditures of money by the government of the United States. In other words, they literally hold the purse strings of Congress. Their actions decide whether a particular legislation, agency, etc. is actually funded, and able to carry out its purpose. Martha Griffiths served as a Democratic Representative from Michigan from 1955 to 1975, and her tenure in office spanned a period that was swept with great social changes, brought about by the implementation of federal policies. Martha was very much part of that process, and she is known as the "Mother of the ERA". Representative Griffith championed the sexual discrimination clause of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment. Her career was groundbreaking in another way: being the first woman to secure a seat on the influential Ways and Means committee.2 The Ways and Means committee is the oldest committee in the U.S. Congress, and it is the chief tax-writing committee, having jurisdiction over revenue and related issues such as tariffs, reciprocal trade agreements, and the bonded debt of the United States, as well as revenue-related aspects of the Social Security system, Medicare, and social services programs.
Shirley Chisholm, was a community activist who went on to serve as a Democratic Representative from the state of New York from 1969 to 1983. She was the first African American woman in Congress. In 1972 she became the first woman, first African American, and the first person of color to run for the United States presidency. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. She focused on a variety of causes that impacted the poorest and most marginalized people in the nation. These causes included increases in federal funding to extend the hours of day care facilities, pointing out early on that Child Care was not just a women's issue; and these sentiments were echoed by President Obama in his 2015 State of the Union address. Her other caucuses included: guaranteed minimum annual income for families and assistance for education.
Pat Schroeder, served as a Democratic Representative from the state of Colorado from 1973-1997. She served on the Armed Services Committee, who became a household name after telling Pentagon officials that if they were women, they would always be pregnant, because they never said "no".9 And when asked on how she could be a mother of two small children and a Member of Congress at the same time, she replied "I have a brain and a uterus and I use both".10 With statements such as these, there should be no doubt that Representative Schroeder was a feminist. In fact, much of Schroeder's career was dedicated to women's rights and reforms affecting families; and these issues included: women's health care, child rearing, expansion of Social Security benefits, and gender equity in the workplace. Her contributions include the following: founding of the Congressional Women's Caucus, helping to pass the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which mandated that employers could not dismiss women employees simply because they were pregnant or deny them disability or maternity benefits (yes these rights and benefits were not secured until 1978!), created and chaired the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families (which was subsequently dismantled in 1995, and should rightfully be reinstated), her biggest successes were the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act.
Carolyn Mosley Braun was the first African American woman elected to the Senate in 1992, during the Year of the Women, and she previously served as a Democratic Representative for the State of Illinois. During her time in office she was referred to as a women's rights activist and civil rights activist; and she even dared to campaign for gun control. However, her career was marred by a scandal involving misconduct and mismanagement of funds.
Nancy Pelosi serves as a Democratic Representative from the state of California. She was also the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, and is now the minority leader.
In 2012, Mazie Hironon became the first Asian American to serve in the Senate, after previously serving in the House and as the Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii. During her time in office she has cosponsored a number of Bills that focus on safeguarding human rights, women's rights, labor rights, and the rights of marginalized populations. These bills include: S/2687-Access to Contraception for women service members and dependents, S.2625-Access to Birth Control Act, S.2629-Preventative Care Coverage Notification Act, S.2599-Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act of 2014, S.2578-Protect Women's Health From Corporate Interference Act of 2014, S.2223-Minimum Wage Fairness Act, S.2199-Paycheck Fairness Act, and the S.2472-International Women Act of 2014. However her cosponsoring of S.2472 comes with a great deal of irony, being that she cosponsored a number of bills upholding the United States' support of the state of Israel, despite the nation's human rights violations that it carries out against the Palestinian people.
Barbara Lee is a Progressive voice in Congress, who was first elected to Congress in 1998 as a Democratic Representative from California. She advocates for social and economic justice, international peace, and civil & human rights. She is a founding member and Vice Chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, a member of the Pro-Choice Caucus, receiving a 100-percent rating from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America; and is a founding member of the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus, a coalition of the Congressional Black Caucus, Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Hispanic Caucus. She gained national attention and notoriety in 2001 for being the ONLY member of Congress to vote against the Authorization fro Use of Military Force, following the terrorist attacks on September 11th; showing that she is not afraid of sticking to her ideals and convictions. Unfortunately the other members of Congress gave George Bush what he later proclaimed was a "mandate" to rage war in the Middle East - in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing millions (on both sides), and creating new enemies for the nation, leading to networks such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); all while being the major contributing factor for the current recession that the U.S. is still trying to dig itself out of. Yet, when pundits speak about the failure of this war that has persisted for 14 years, many do not bother to mention the courage and foresight of Representative Barbara Lee. Even more interesting is that many speak about Hilary Clinton, or freshmen Senator Elizabeth Warren, both Caucasian, being frontrunners for the 2016 Democratic ticket; without even considering Barbara Lee, the African American progressive and feminist.
American exceptionalism is a theory that the United States is qualitively different from other nations, and the implication is often that the United States serves as a model first world nation; and thus Americans are able to take on a strangely passionate patriotic pride in this exceptionalism. When it comes to many social issues and political institutions, America is indeed exceptional. It is the only post-industrial nation that lacks universal healthcare and paid sick leave, and continues to be one of two hold outs in ratifying a human rights treaty, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), despite the treaty being signed in 1979 by President Carter. The aforementioned Progressive Congresswoman Barbara Lee is co-sponsor of current legislation urging Congress to ratify the CEDAW.
· In 2008, the United States ranked 69th in worldwide female leadership.
· In 2009, the United States ranked 71st in worldwide female leadership.
· In 2010, the United States ranked 72nd in worldwide female leadership.
· In 2012, the United States ranked 80th in worldwide female leadership.
· In 2013, the United States ranked 77th in worldwide female leadership.
· In 2014, the United States ranked 84th in worldwide female leadership.
The 1952 United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women brought forth a number of provisions, but did not diminish the concerns of equal access to political participation for women. Thuss it was restated in the Article 7 of the CEDAW, which again the U.S. government has failed to ratify. Under this article, women are guaranteed the rights to vote, hold public office, and to exercise public functions. Under Article 8 of the CEDAW, these rights are expanded to include equal rights for women to represent their countries at the international level.
When considering these statistics and the global problem of disproportionate leadership, the U.S. does not seem too exceptional, in that it is merely upholding the status quo. Among the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) is goal Number 3 - Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women. This will not be achieved without the full participation of women in government. Additionally, without achieving this, demanding and enforcing gender equality in other sectors will prove to be hypocritical and impossible.
One nation to take note of is Rwanda. Although it may be deemed a developing nation, and had suffered economic and social setbacks during the 1994 Genocide, Rwanda proves to be progressive in terms of government. Due to the fact that the country's constitution provides for Ombudsman who act as public advocates, the nation has some of the lowest levels of corruption relative to other African nations. Transparency International actually ranked Rwanda as the 8th cleanest out of 47 countries is sub-Saharan Africa, and the 66th cleanest out of 178 in the world. The nation also ranks first in female leadership worldwide, where it has the highest number of women parliamentarians. These women hold 63.8% of the seats in the lower house of government.
In advocating for the increase in number of women holding political office in governments, we must be cognizant of the fact that numbers are not enough. There is no benefit in having women holding positions of leadership if these women do not advocate for women's human rights and other socioeconomic issues -- racism, police brutality, labor rights, health care access, affordable housing, consumer protections, environmental regulations -- from a progressive standpoint. Electing women who are unwilling to take the necessary stand on these issues - and this is greatly represented by their voting record, and not the lip service that they pay in the media - would only hold up the status quo of gender inequity.
For example, while many celebrate Rebecca Latimer Felton, of the State of Georgia, as being the first woman in the U.S. Senate, one cannot ignore the fact that she was an ardent racist and would certainly not have been an ally to women of color. Take for example her comments from an 1897 speech regarding lynching, "The biggest problem facing women on the farm was the danger of the black rapists. If it takes lynching to protect women's dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts....then I say lynch a thousand a week". As a Southerner, Latimer Felton condemned anyone who dared to question the South's racial policies, and one can be certain that her discussion about women did not include the Black or indigenous women living in the State of Georgia at that time, who were also subjected to lynchings and mob violence.
Now, take a look at some of the photos of The Texas Federation of Republican Women, which boasts that it is the most powerful women's political organization in Texas, and ask yourself whether this organization and the candidates that it supports and funds look like they consider women of color and the intersecting issues that impact their lives?
Again, it is not enough to have a woman elected to office if she is a racist, blinded by white privilege, or finds some reason to view another group of people - particularly women as "The Other" - outside her scope of representation. It is beliefs like this that later helped usher in the era of Reganomics, with the falsehood of the Welfare Queen and the War on Drugs, which was a nothing more than a War on the Poor and an Attack on the Middle Class. The Welfare Queen story essentially incited, and continues to incite, racial animosity, where Black women (and other women of color) are viewed as being lazy and constantly looking for government handouts when the truth of the matter is that most welfare recipients are white and do not live in urban settings. Yet, the stereotypical view persists and is still used to cut social safety net programs.
Consider the 2014 Paul Ryan Plan, a budget proposal that would get 69 of its budget cuts from programs for people with low or moderate incomes, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This was a hypocritical move coming from the Chair of the House Ways and Means committee considering his dependency on government entitlements, public education, etc. The plan, which would see cuts of $3.4 trillion over ten years (2015-2024) predictably does not include any cuts to the defense budget. Defense contractors and their political allies would not have to be concerned about a loss in profits, which they acquire from the military industrial complex - something President Eisenhower warned Americans about. Of course, the 2014 plan was not Ryan's first attempt at putting forth this budget proposal; it is just more worrisome given the current make-up of the U.S. Congress. In 2012, Ryan put forth a similar plan which was famously rejected by women.
Ultimately, having the wrong women in office only contributes to these disastrous effects of wedge politics and social inequity.
New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte thinks that it would prohibit merit-based pay. She also voted against it because Democrats opposed her amendment to the legislation.
Maine's Susan Collins thinks that the Civil Rights Act the 1963 Equal Pay Act are enough protection to provide equal pay. According to Collins, the proposed law would "impose a real burden … on small businesses." She thinks that women get paid less because of their own choices.
Nebraska's Deb Fischer accused Democrats of politics for putting the bill forward for the second time, this time one week before the congressional recess for midterm elections.
You can read these Senators comments and attempts to justify their actions here.
The reason why we must advocate for the inclusion of 'pro-women's human rights' women in Congress and other houses and government is because there is truly much at stake. The War on women is well documented and has been discussed thoroughly. There are attempts to take agency over our bodies, to categorize rape and talk about "legitimate rape", decrease access to birth control and safe abortions, and the list goes on; including the continued rape and degradation of the environment, which are exemplified by ongoing fracking and attempts to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. From an economic standpoint, there is also the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement that will have the greatest and most negative impact on women and children, the groups most marginalized and impoverished in society.
Still, there is the need to ensure the enforcement of Title IX on college campuses as well as investigate the once-silent rape epidemic in the U.S. military. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) still awaits ratification, and American workers are still not guaranteed paid sick leave, extended maternal leave, and child care aid; all of which directly impacts women and children. Thus, legislation such as the Affordable Care Act, despite its flaws and avoidance of the single-payer option, should be protected. The act ensures that all women have access to preventative care such as mammograms and pap smears.
We must keep in mind that there is much at stake, and there are attempts to erode women's human rights. Within literally weeks in office, the newly minted Republican-majority Congress attempted to push through an anti-abortion measure, the "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act", which was surprisingly defeated due to the moderate members of the GOP. House GOP members actually broke rank with their party, protesting the language of the bill that required women who seek an exception to the ban due to being raped, having to back up their claim with a formal police report. Although this defeat is welcome news, it does not mean that there will not be even more attempts to curtail the reproductive rights of American women. Which makes the efforts of Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and Jackie Speier (CA) seem even more important. On February 4, 2015, the two introduced the Access to Contraception for Women Service-members and Dependents Act. In applauding the efforts of the Senators, the National Women's Law Center described the legislation as such: A critical piece of legislation that will ensure all women who rely on the military for health care receive comprehensive contraceptive coverage and counseling. The bill will give these women equal access to the same comprehensive birth control coverage, education and counseling at no cost that all other federal employees and tens of millions of other women now enjoy, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. The bill also ensures that servicewomen will receive comprehensive family planning counseling and are provided the information they need to plan if and when to have a child.
Encourage more women, especially women of color, to become more interested and involved in politics and governance in order to cultivate more viable candidates for office. According to the Center for Women and Politics of Rutgers University, in 2008, 60.4% of eligible females voted (70.4 million) while 55.7% of eligible men voted (60.7 million), compared to 48.6% of women, and 46.9% of men in 2006. The fact of that matter is that more women vote in U.S. elections than men, however there only option are only male candidates.
CHECK voting records and hold women in office accountable. Let them know that we are paying attention and that we expect them to vote in a matter that truly represents the needs of women. During the 2010 midterm elections, female (mostly White) voters shifted to the Republican party despite the horrific anti-woman legislation and attacks on social programs, depended upon by many women, that the party was proposing. This shift speaks to the issue of White privilege, where White women voters who are not burdened with stereotypes and racist propaganda such as the Welfare Queen or illegal immigrant worker coming for American jobs, and who do not have to cope with a myriad of intersecting issues, often and more readily shift their votes between the two parties without giving much thought to the detrimental effects of their "swing" vote.
VOTE and support the right women candidates; and this includes voting at the local level where the candidates who eventually seek national office begin their careers and decided upon legislation that would most directly impact your lives.
Source: Catalyst. Catalyst Quick Take: Women in Government. New York: Catalyst, 2012.
It is perhaps time to follow the lead of countries such as Rwanda, Angola, Korea, Albania, France, Macedonia, Belgium, Uzbekistan, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Costa Rica, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and many others in post-industrial nations, as well as those in the Global South, and put in place legislation to increase the representation of women in national government. Yes, this would be a quota that would ensure that a minimum number of seats in the national government be reserved for women. Doing so may be the only way to ensure that women are represented in a manner which closely reflects their concerns and numbers in society; and to also ensure that women's issues are not debated over by a room full of men.
3. Winifred Mallon, An Impression of Jeannette Rankin" The Suffragist (March 31, 1917)
5. Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 August 1946): 10771-10772.