The telephone calls from reporters arrive like clockwork every January to the Center for American Women and Politics. “Is this going to be The Year of the Woman?” they want to know.
This month has been no different. Political reporters ascribe great significance to changes in the running tally of women in Congress, even though the number tends to shift in low single digits from one election to the next. Any gains, even one woman added, is big news.
The Center for American Women and Politics is the go-to think tank for all information about women’s political participation, and in a Jan. 2 press release it announced that, with Tina Smith sworn in as the new senator from Minnesota, there is a “record number of women in the Senate.” There are now 22 women senators, 17 Democrats and five Republicans.
Is that so much to rejoice about? Women fill fewer than 20 percent of the seats in Congress (106 women, also an increase of one from 2016).
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Such a sprinkling of women will never fundamentally change the gender-based power norm of American politics until attitudes of both voters and the women running for office change.
There are many excellent organizations working to advance the interests of women in politics: EMILY’s List, VoteRunLead and Name It. Change It. The #MeToo movement has generated a combination of anger and energy directed at toppling blatantly sexist people and institutions that persist in media, civil society and — as we may see in 2018 — politics.
However, despite the presence of some high-powered women in Congress and in the party executive structures, it is predominantly men in both parties who still decide who runs, who is recruited and who gets funded, supported and then allowed access to important committees.
Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden and a scholar for the center, is guardedly optimistic about how women candidates may do this year. “Most years are not the year of the woman,” she said, but she senses something afoot that is not captured by headcounts.
Women, she believes, are on the cusp of finally being able to run campaigns that more authentically portray them as women candidates, with their gender being an added value that they can run on. Not entirely, of course. Female political candidates still often suffer from a double bind: They must be simultaneously feminine enough and masculine enough to appeal to voters.
She points to the relatively few times that Hillary Clinton in her campaign pointed to her gender as an added asset.
“Clearly, I’m not asking people to vote for me simply because I’m a woman,” Clinton said in July 2015, before going on to add, “I think one of the merits is I am a woman.”
In previous campaigns, such language would not have been encouraged because it might turn off voters. What has changed, Dittmar said, is that the sexual assault scandals, combined with the stagnation that has come to typify the “do-nothing” Congress, have created a general willingness to see women as the solution.
There is a history of women being appointed or elected to fill slots vacated by men who have behaved badly. The current climate of men falling to sexual harassment allegations certainly qualifies, and seats continue to open at a healthy pace.
Those are opportunities for female candidates, especially if they do not have to run against incumbents, always an uphill battle for a newbie.
Here is where stereotypes can help. Women are perceived by voters as more ethical than men. Consultants often feel that voters will be more open to a woman candidate because they don’t want the same scandal repeated, Dittmar said.
That fact could dovetail well with the increasing interest among women to run for elected office. And there is money behind what women want from politics. The Center for Responsive Politics recently reported that the number of female donors to federal candidates and committees is booming, up by more than 280 percent.
Again, the real shift could occur if those women aren’t treated as just a momentary corrective but rather as a catalyst for deep questioning and even upending of the status quo in politics, which has largely been created by and for men.