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Action Alert

Woman Power: Election 2012

In the 2012 presidential election, the role of women and women’s rights will be hotly contested. Stances on the crucial issues of women’s reproductive rights will continue to be battled across party lines and take up large portions of the media’s attention, while both candidates resoundingly declare themselves the champion of America’s women.

Women’s rights outside of the examination room will also play a large role this election season, as prominent class-action lawsuits continued to be brought against large corporations for sex-based wage discrimination. Against this backdrop, American women are consistently participating in greater numbers at the ballot box than men and are voting for substantial economic issues in addition to reproductive rights, rather than simply the candidate. It is troubling then in this charged debate on gender issues that the voices of women in positions of political power are so infrequently heard and the opinions of female constituents so frequently distorted.

Increasing women’s participation in politics has been a challenge in the United States. While gender allocations are commonly written into newer constitutions, such as Afghanistan, and countries typically seen as discriminatory have had female heads of government, such as Pakistan, less than a quarter of state and federal offices are held by women in the United States.

The lack of women involved in the American political process bodes ill for the legitimacy of our democratic processes. The issues that women are more likely than men to come into contact with–family issues, sexual harassment laws, equal pay–may not receive the adequate attention they deserve without women well-represented at all levels of government. Women in office bring opinions and viewpoints from backgrounds that men likely do not share, enriching the policy discussion.

Bringing women into the political discussion is especially important, given the high rates of educational achievement among women. Women do better throughout the educational path than men, getting better grades, graduating in higher rates from high school and university and are more likely to graduate with advanced degrees. These benefits accrue not just to women but to the country as well. Shutting out these highly qualified women from the political discourse does damage to our institutions. Changing this persistent status quo will require more targeted outreach and education to show women they can achieve higher office despite prejudice.

According to a 2011 study from Stanford University, women in Congress are, simply put, better at their jobs than their male colleagues. Congresswomen sponsor and cosponsor more bills, and receive more cosponsors on their own bills. Bills supported by congresswomen are significantly more likely to be signed into law.          

Female representation in elected politics is stagnant at around 23 percent. One study showed a persistent gap in political ambition, which may contribute to this low number. The study explored reasons why women may be averse to political office, including the fact that they perceive the electoral environment to be biased against them.

It would then be understandable that women would view themselves as less qualified for a campaign and view the campaign as geared for failure, since there is ample evidence of sex bias against hypothetical female candidates.  

However, these biases do not play out at the ballot box in an appreciable way. A large study of the primary races for the House of Representatives since 1958 found no such bias. “Contrary to our expectations, women’s primary victory rates are not significantly lower than those of our male counterparts.” Not only that, but since 1990, women have won 60 percent of Democratic primaries where at least one woman ran.

The principal barrier to political ambition appears to be that people simply do not ask women to run. Unlike other countries, with strong party systems, party lists and candidate slates, the United States has a relatively weak party system with very little local control over candidacies. Individual ambition plays a bigger role and women’s lack of political ambition means they will be underrepresented. But women are just as likely to accept the suggestion of candidacy as men, showing that their self-perceptions and their perceptions of campaigning are not strongly held.

Despite reports suggesting that women are shying away from public office, women are stepping forward in greater numbers than ever–as activists, donors and candidates. This year is poised to be a historic year, with 15 women running for the U.S. Senate—a record-breaking number. Women will be deciding voters in the 2012 elections and women candidates don’t want to turn back the clock on women’s rights; they want to focus on issues like jobs, the economy and problems affecting families across the country.

Female candidates’ platforms have to be far broader than the “women’s issues” that brought many of their predecessors into politics.      

The election in 2008 was, to borrow a phrase, game-changing for women. Women voted strongly for the eventual presidential winner, Barack Obama, a women’s rights advocate whose first authorizing signature went on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. There’s some strength in the women’s constituency. A bit more than half of all Americans are women and women have higher turnout than men. In 2008, 131 million people voted, and 53.7 percent of them were women.

Women do not vote uniformly by any means, but there are a number of areas that women tend to coalesce around: “kitchen-table issues,” such as education, health, equal pay, family safety nets and crime. By shaping democratic policies, women shape national politics.


What can you do?

  • Consider running for office–go to www.sheshouldrun.org or www.runwomenrun.org to get started.
  • Find out about campaign education and training–go to www.cawp.rutgers.edu, the website of the Center for American Women and Politics or visit www.thewhitehouseproject.org.
  • Support women candidates who promote our priorities: justice for victims of human trafficking; immigrant and civil rights; the well-being of youth, women and families; and climate justice.
  • Invite a woman candidate to meet with your unit to discuss her position on United Methodist Women priorities.
  • Become a member of Women’s Campaign Fund – go to www.wcfonline.org.
  • Read ¶5072 Encouragement to Vote in Elections (p. 700), ¶164 The Political Community: B) Political Responsibility (p. 635-6), of the Book of Resolutions 2008.

To learn more about women in the democratic process, consult the sources of this Action Alert:

Last Updated: 04/08/2014

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