The 2012 elections will be significant for several female politicians seeking re-election; but even if they win, the United States will still fall short in terms of women in legislative positions.
Next year will see the greatest number ever of female incumbents seeking re-election in the Senate. Ten Democratic women, including six incumbents, will be running for Senate seats, as will one Republican incumbent woman and one presumed female GOP nominee. But abysmal approval ratings for Congress could lead to a difficult battle for incumbents — meaning that the 2012 elections could bring a drop-off in the already small number of female Senators.
More women have been in the Senate each year since 1978; even so, there are only 17 current female Senators and 72 women in the House of Representatives. For a country in which women comprise more than half the population, those numbers reflect a persistent, massive gender gap in national politics.
On this question, the United States falls behind several other countries — embarrassingly, this includes Afghanistan, where women could not legally attend school until after the Taliban was removed. There, 28 percent of parliamentary seats went to women in the 2010 elections, more than the 25 percent of seats guaranteed to women in their constitution. The irony here is obvious, since Americans often use the banner of women’s rights to justify military intervention elsewhere despite the glaring inequalities stateside.
The New York Times discussed the importance of next year’s Senate elections, and then took a step further to explain the motivations of female politicians with a blanket statement:
Unlike men, who tend to be attracted to public office because of their interest in politics, women often run because their interest is sparked by a single policy issue, often quite local. This dynamic is a theme of ABC’s hit show “Modern Family,” in which one main character, Claire Dunphy, a housewife, is running for town council against the male incumbent who refused her neighborhood a new stop sign.
While the prospect of a Times reporter gleaning political knowledge from a popular sitcom is laughable, the underlying sentiment reveals a persistent tendency to generalize and trivialize women in power. There might be some women whose interest in public office is fueled by a particular issue, but to say most women are not interested in politics itself is a broad and misguided insult. Statements such as these in the media and elsewhere reassert the need for continued feminist activism. Not until such attitudes are shifted can the United States hope to see an increase in female politicians — and have a Congress that is truly representative of its population.