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Outside Looking In

Women have made inroads into many facets of American society, with impressive results. But they are stubbornly underrepresented in public office. There are a number of explanations for their tepid showing in the halls of the United States Congress and state legislatures, from a lack of funding to a discouraging political culture. Yet, because of organizations like the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, certain political issues, and congressional redistricting, 2012 may be a banner year for women seeking office. By Leslie Garisto Pfaff


illustration women in politicsIt’s been called a “stall,” a “stagnation,” and even, ominously, a “flatliner.” In 2008, after steadily growing for three decades, the percentage of American women in public office abruptly halted its upward trajectory. Today, women make up roughly 17 percent of the United States Congress and 24 percent of state legislatures. That’s a 14 percent increase since 1979, but virtually identical to 2008’s numbers. Debbie Walsh GSNB’80, director of the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), calls the stall “very frustrating.” It begs the question, she says, “Why are we at this point?”

CAWP is in a unique position to help find the answer. It was established in 1971 as a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics to determine why so few women were involved in electoral politics. Over the past four decades, CAWP has been dedicated to researching virtually every aspect of women’s political involvement, encouraging women to run and supporting them after they’ve made the decision. “The two questions we asked at the center’s inception,” says Ruth Mandel, CAWP’s founding director, “were about numbers and impact: Why so few, and why should we care?”

Those questions are still being asked, at CAWP and across the university (and the nation), along with the most important question of all: What can we do to make sure women achieve parity with men in elective office? The answer may do more than ensure equal representation by gender; it could end up significantly altering the political and legislative landscape.

American women, of course, have made great political strides since the early 1970s, and not just in terms of an increase in officeholders. “We’ve had Hillary Clinton almost rising to the presidential nomination and Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives—two visible, powerful women—and we’ve seen two female vice presidential nominees,” says Elizabeth Hull, chair of the Department of Political Science at Rutgers–Newark. On the other hand, the United States ranks 79th in the number of women elected to high office, well behind other Western nations like Sweden, Finland, Spain, and Canada, and nations like South Africa, Rwanda, and Iraq where women have played key roles in the transition to more democratic forms of government. The barriers to running that have kept American women from true representation in office vary, from cultural biases to entrenched political interests.

“The culture of the United States still finds it very difficult to see women in major leadership positions,” notes Alison Bernstein, director of the Rutgers Institute for Women’s Leadership, citing the intense criticism Nancy Pelosi received as Speaker of the House. And the criticism women receive isn’t always about matters of state. “As a woman, you get criticized for how you look and what you wear in a way that men usually don’t,” says Annette Quijano CCAS’88, SBC’88, NLAW’91, who is the Democratic assemblywoman representing New Jersey’s 20th legislative district and also the deputy majority leader. “I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, you look heavy in those pictures’ or ‘Why did you wear that jacket?’ Who cares what I wear?”

Women seem to be less eager to subject themselves—and, more important, their families—to the kind of close, sometimes brutal, scrutiny a run for office entails. They also seem to be more easily turned off by the current political climate of partisan bickering and legislative deadlock. “Coming forward into political life in this country is very difficult,” says Mandel. “I don’t know how many women have walked up to the political arena, taken a look, and said, ‘This is a beast I don’t want to embrace.’ ”

left to right L. Grace Spencer, Annette Quijano, Barbara Buono, Caroline Casagrande, Nia Gill
Left to right, assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, senator Barbara Buono, assemblywoman Annette Quijano, and senator Nia Gill are the alumnae serving in the New Jersey Legislature. They are among the women who make up roughly 29 percent of female representation in Trenton, placing New Jersey 10th nationally for women holding state office. There are, however, no women in the New Jersey congressional delegation. These five women, to varying degrees, have known the hurdles facing women running for office and thriving upon their election: vocational and lifestyle impediments, fundraising and campaigning challenges, and the turbulent life in the political arena in which self-promotion and assertiveness usually carry the day. Nonetheless, when they do run for office, women have a strong record of electability and serving effectively in legislative chambers because they often champion specific issues. And, the record shows, they are more likely to compromise and strive for consensus—something woefully in short supply in Washington, D.C. Photography by Benoit Cortet.

Sometimes, the cultural biases that women confront are internal. Caroline Casagrande CLAW’02, the Republican assemblywoman representing New Jersey’s 11th legislative district, was the youngest woman to be elected to the state’s legislature, at age 30, and so confident in her ability to handle the office that she ran in spite of the voices urging her to put off the campaign until she was more seasoned. But many women, she says, have trouble shaking off what she calls “a cultural ‘good girl’ attitude” that keeps them from pursuing their goals full throttle. “Males are very good at nominating themselves for things, but by the time a female asks for a promotion, a position, or an appointment, she’s probably a year past the point where she was ready for it.”

In fact, CAWP’s research indicates that women tend not to run unless someone asks them, “and they may need to be asked multiple times,” says Walsh. “Women are less likely to be asked than men, so you have a situation where they’re less confident, they need to be asked, they don’t get asked. Guess what? They don’t run.”

On the other hand, many women have an abundance of confidence but a dearth of something men are more likely to possess: time. “Many women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s already have two full-time jobs,” says Susan Carroll, a professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers–New Brunswick, referring to career and family responsibilities. “To take on a run for office, which is essentially a third full-time job, is really difficult—which is why we find the pattern of women tending to run when they’re older, when their family responsibilities have diminished somewhat.”

Another roadblock is a basic reality of American political life: there simply aren’t that many seats to run for. “The people who are already there will fight to stay, and it’s very hard to remove them,” says Mandel. American voters may complain about “career politicians,” but that doesn’t keep them from reelecting incumbents in their own districts. Political newcomers of any kind, whether people of color or women, have a hard time finding winnable elections in which to run. And it sometimes happens, says Hull, that women candidates find themselves treated like “sacrificial lambs,” offered only those races their party assumes it isn’t likely to win.

It’s not a coincidence that 1992 saw the largest single increase in the number of women elected to Congress. It wasn’t only the year after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy, a public spectacle that pitted a younger woman against a powerful, older man and galvanized a number of women to run for public office; it was also a redistricting year. When districts are redrawn—occurring every 10 years to reflect the latest census—many states gain congressional seats. And where there are new seats, there are no incumbents to run against, making those seats easier for newcomers to win. Of the 24 women newly elected to Congress in 1992, 22 of them won seats that were open because of redistricting.

Even when women run in elections they have a reasonable chance of winning, they often face obstacles in fundraising. L. Grace Spencer NCAS’92, NLAW’96, a Democratic assemblywoman representing the state’s 29th legislative district and the deputy speaker of the New Jersey Legislature, suspects that stems, in part, from the fact that “a man will give to a man before he’ll give to a woman, and a woman will give to another woman before she’ll give to a man, and often it’s the men who have more money to give.” And for some female candidates, fundraising is a final frontier, the one political skill they haven’t yet honed. “I can fundraise for someone else better than I can for myself,” admits Quijano, who finds the idea of asking someone to give her money “problematic philosophically.”

“Fundraising, especially in the wake of Citizens United,” the Supreme Court decision waiving restrictions on independent political contributions by corporations and unions, “requires a certain kind of relentlessness that many—not most, but many—women aren’t comfortable with,” says Hull.

None of this is to say that women are, by nature, less effective legislators. In 2009, a study out of Stanford University and the University of Chicago found that women in Congress introduced more legislation and brought more money back to their districts than men did. Nevertheless, women often have to fight harder to ascend to positions of power such as committee chairmanships. “Because women tend to run when they’re older, their trajectory in politics can be shorter,” Walsh says, “and that limits how far they can go in the electoral process.” That means, in turn, that it’s likely to take more time to develop “old girls’ clubs” to help women officeholders attain power within the party apparatus.

Ruth Mandel and Debbie Walsh
Debbie Walsh, right, is the director of the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), part of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers–New Brunswick, which promotes women in public office. Ruth Mandel, left, founded CAWP in 1971; today, she is the director at Eagleton. After making big increases for three decades, women’s representation in public office plateaued in 2008, although this November women could make large gains in the U.S. Congress. Photography by Nick Romanenko.

The one obstacle American women don’t face is winning elections. “When women run, they win at about the same rate as men,” says Walsh. That helps to explain why organizations like CAWP concentrate, first and foremost, on recruiting women candidates to make those runs. And because 2012, like 1992, is both a year of redistricting and a presidential election year (virtually guaranteeing a higher-than-normal voter turnout), it’s become the focus of a number of national efforts, including CAWP’s 2012 Project. The brainchild of Mary Hughes, a political strategist based in California, the project aims to encourage women who haven’t been active in politics to run for office, particularly those at an age (45 or older) when they’re likely to have fewer family responsibilities. CAWP’s research has shown that women generally pursue elective office because they feel passionate about a particular issue (unlike men, who tend to run in order to further a political career). So the 2012 Project has reached out to women from a range of occupations, many previously underrepresented in government, like engineering, education, and nursing. The project’s faculty of former officeholders have spoken with women around the country to inspire them to run and put them in touch with essential resources like She-PAC and Emily’s List, political action committees dedicated to supporting female candidates.

Another, similar resource is CAWP’s Ready to Run, a nonpartisan program founded more than a decade ago and inspired by research, says Walsh, that showed that “women are more likely than men to participate in some kind of campaign training.” The program prepares women in New Jersey to campaign in the state, with a curriculum covering the essentials of the run, from fundraising to navigating party structure. Over a quarter of the program’s 1,500-plus alumnae have run for office, and 70 percent of those have won their campaigns. Proof of Ready to Run’s effectiveness: when it was launched in 1998, New Jersey ranked 39th in the nation for women serving in the state legislature; in 2012, it ranked 10th. And CAWP is helping other states, 13 of them thus far, replicate the program.

In the long run, though, programs that train women how to campaign may be less important than efforts to convince young women that campaigning is a woman’s game—and no one is more aware of that than women already in power. “We have to bring up with us females at all levels of government, whether we’re mentoring someone on a local council or a recent college grad stuffing envelopes at headquarters,” says Casagrande. “We can’t underestimate the importance of making young women understand that they’re worth it, and that they should ask for it.”

Barbara Buono CLAW’79, Democratic senator for New Jersey’s 18th legislative district, traces her political roots to her adolescence, when she was mesmerized by the televised image of congresswoman Barbara Jordan urging the House Judiciary Committee to impeach president Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate break-in. Buono established young women’s leadership programs in two high schools, one in Edison, New Jersey, and one in New Brunswick because, she says, “I wanted young women to think about running, and not wait to be asked.” (Buono admits that she, like most women in elective office, didn’t decide to run until someone else urged her to.)

It may, however, take more than mentoring to get women’s legislative numbers up. Bernstein, for instance, believes that the best way to get more women into political office is through what she calls “targeted numbers” in the slates of the two major parties. “I am not using the word ‘quota,’” she says. “I’m talking about people in positions of leadership saying, ‘We need to demonstrate our commitment to women’s equity by making sure that at least a third of the people we’re putting up are women.’”

There’s another factor that could propel women into the political process, but it isn’t one for which anyone can plan. One reason that 1992 was such an important year for women in public office is that it offered what Walsh calls “a galvanizing experience” in the form of the Hill-Thomas hearings. This year’s galvanizing experience could be the so-called “war on women,” a perceived assault on reproductive rights led largely by Republican legislators and embodied by commentator Rush Limbaugh’s verbal attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, who testified in February in favor of expanded insurance coverage for contraception.

It was women in office who were among the most vociferous critics of what many saw as an assault on women’s reproductive rights. Earlier this year, a number of them introduced bills targeting men’s rights (a proposed law in Ohio, for instance, would require a man to see a sex therapist before filling a prescription for Viagra). No one expected the bills to pass; rather, they were intended as a broadside in the “war against women.” When CAWP was founded, notes Mandel, “if some of these very reactionary policies had been introduced around the country, there wouldn’t have been women in office to notice.”

Whether attacks on women’s reproductive rights are a contributing factor or not, 2012 is shaping up to be a historic year for women running for political office. Of the record-breaking 296 women who filed for runs for the U.S. House of Representatives, 163 have won their primaries. (The record was 141 women House candidates in 2004.) So it’s possible that women could gain a record number of congressional seats. (For an update, go to

The presence of women has already altered the legislative landscape, and it’s likely that equal representation would change it even further. “President Obama said, ‘Send more women to Congress and more things would get done,’ and I would take the president’s lead on that,” says Nia Gill NLAW’75, a Democratic senator representing New Jersey’s 34th legislative district. That may be, as BettyLou DeCroce, a Republican assemblywoman representing the 26th legislative district, observes, because women are more likely than men to reach across the aisle and to strive for consensus. “Women can adjust,” she says. “They can think things out in a way that may bring forth a joint effort.” The key to ending the current gridlock in Washington, D.C., then, just might be a dramatic rise in the number of women legislators.

An equally dramatic change could be a more open legislative process. “We’ve found that women are more likely to believe that government should operate transparently,” says Walsh. Women also tend to embrace a slightly different set of issues. Walsh notes, for instance, that when the Violence Against Women Act was up for reauthorization in the U.S. Senate earlier this year, men voted largely in accordance with the party line (with Democrats voting yea and most Republicans voting nay) while women wholeheartedly supported the act, regardless of party affiliation.

Many of the issues that women officeholders end up championing address the issues of work and family, not necessarily because these are women’s primary interests but because female legislators soon discover that no one else is taking them up. And, says Casagrande, these are issues that men may be less aware of in their day-to-day lives, such as the cost of child care. “Not everyone knows that day care costs $1,000 a month per kid,” she says. “Unless you’re in charge of the 5 o’clock pickup, you’re not as aware of the impact that has on the lives of New Jersey women.” Bernstein believes that parity in public office could bring about an even more significant alteration. “I think there will probably be more attention paid to looking for alternatives to making war,” she says, “not because women are by nature peace loving but because they’re paying more attention to the impact of war on families.”

And what if none of these changes come to pass? “I still believe that, in a world in which men and women make decisions with respect for one another in some partnership of leadership, we’ll all be better off,” says Mandel. “If women prove in the long run that they can’t change things, let’s at least find out.” •