International Women's Day: Time for Political Equality

by Lindsey Needham // Published March 8, 2012



The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race. 

Susan B. Anthony


Today marks the 101st celebration of International Women's Day. As we take a moment to honor women all across the globe and observe the progress that has been made, we must also use this opportunity to reflect on the work that still needs to be done. Though women have made gains in education and the workforce, gender parity in elected offices has been a painfully slow work-in-progress:

  • Women make up 51% of the world's population.
  • Women hold 16.8% of seats in the United States Congress and 23.6% of state legislative seats.
  • Women constitute 19.5% of parliaments worldwide.

Take a second to let those numbers sink in. No, they do not reflect the state of women's representation 50 years ago. Sadly enough, they depict a harsh modern-day reality that the world has a long way to go before achieving political equality.

Our nation is over two hundred years old, yet there has never been a woman presidentlet alone a female presidential nominee from one of the major parties. Only six states have a female governor currently, and four states have never sent a single woman to Congress. Despite a slow and steady climb over the past three decades, 2010 was the first time Congress actually saw a decline in women's representationthis occurring as the first woman speaker of the House symbolically returned the gavel to the hands of a man.

And there is a good chance these numbers may get worse in 2012. There are currently no female candidates for president, and not a single delegate will be awarded to a woman in this year's presidential primaries. Bev Perdue of North Carolina and Christine Gregoire of Washington, two of the six female governors, have decided to forgo another term, and no women have stepped into either race. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine has decided to call it quits, with Angus King favored to replace her, and Sen. Claire McCaskill faces a tough re-election in Missouri. In the U.S. House, Rep. Jean Schmidt just lost to a man in a Republican primary in Ohio.

As we stomach these abysmal numbers and prepare for the possibility that the state of women's representation worsens, we have to wonder if we are doing everything we can to ensure women have an equal shot at elective office. Looking to other countries around the world, we can see that gender disparity is not an entirely universal problem.

For instance, in two countries (Rwanda and Andorra), women compose at least 50% in the national legislature, and another seven countries have at least 40% women in their lower or single house of parliament. Despite America's attempts to lead the world in protecting human rights, it ranks 78th on this list, well behind Afghanistan at 33rd.

So how have other countries made such progress? Nine of the top ten all use some form of proportional representation (PR), while most of the countries at the bottom of the list use majoritarian systems. And it's no mere coincidence. PR has worked for women in the U.S. too, as cities and states using proportional systems have systematically elected more women.

But what does a voting system have to do with it? Scholar Doug Amy contends that PR pressures parties to nominate more women, since it looks blatantly sexist to nominate an all-male slate of candidates in a multi-member districtthat's a key reason why women candidates have earned a significantly bigger share of elections in multi-seat state legislative districts than in single-member districts. Furthermore, it is difficult to overcome incumbent advantage in a majoritarian system, and in the U.S., most incumbents are obviously men. If the U.S. shifted to a proportional system, women would not have to run one-on-one against men, a situation which often draws attention to gender rather than to the issues.

Obviously, implementing a new voting system will not solve all of our problems. We still need women willing to run for office, we need parties and other groups to actively recruit women candidates, and we need to make sure women have adequate resources to run legitimate campaigns. When there are female candidates, we must also hold campaigns accountable so that they do not stoop to misogynistic tactics. These simple changes will go a long way to improving representation of women.

However, we cannot wait until tomorrow to see the changes that we need today. Please consider taking action in your community to support a voting system that encourages greater representation of women, and stay tuned for FairVote's new resource pages on women and representation to be released later this spring.