By Karen Humphrey, Sacramento NWPC
2012 — Year of the Woman Redux? Don’t count on it!
The 2012 general election could well fit the classic question, “is the glass half-full or is it half-empty?” In the case of women in elected office, “half” overstates the case–women currently make up only 17% of Congress (both the Senate and House) and they make up only about 23% of state legislators. But 2012 could be a good year for getting more women elected.
The optimistic take is that 2012 has seen the largest number of women candidates ever for Congress–18 for the Senate and 163 for the House of Representatives for a total of 181. The previous record was set in 2004 with 14 women candidates for Senate and 141 for the House for a total of 155. Recent studies show that when women run, they tend to win at the same rate that men win–so the more women candidates, the better the chance of gaining seats for women. But not every one of the 181 women candidates will win–some will lose to other women and some will lose to men.
It remains to be seen whether the ratio of women to men in Congress will improve as a result of the 2012 election, but the simple fact of more women candidates is certainly progress. Nevertheless, at the rate that women are gaining as a percentage of elected officials, it will be decades before we reach 50-50 parity in public office. It’s also hard to see the glass as more than half-empty when you consider the following: of approximately 13,000 people who have served as Members of Congress, only 2% have been women. At the state level, 2,317 men have served as governors in this nation’s history–but only 31 women have held that position. Partly that’s because women were not even treated like citizens–much less officeholders–until they gained the right to vote in 1920. But since then, progress has simply not been fast enough.
Because this year is both a Presidential year and one in which new districts have been drawn throughout the nation, some believe 2012 could be a reprise of the famous 1992 “Year of the Woman,” when women made enormous gains in a single election. Like 1992, redistricting and other reforms have opened up more seats and helped improve the chances for feminist women candidates. In addition, the Presidential election has increased interest and so has the “war on women”–multiple attacks by Congress and many state legislatures on women’s gains, especially on reproductive rights. The verdict won’t be written until November 6th, but I think it is possible women will move the nation a little closer to the 50-50 point. But the outlook is much less rosy in the state of California.
California Women Lead, an organization that represents elected and appointed women and promotes increasing their number, regularly reviews the status of women in state legislative positions and on county Boards of Supervisors. The “good” news about the Legislature is that if women win every one of the races where they are favored, and if they do well by sweeping all the vacant seats where they are challenging incumbents and/or running for competitive open seats, we will end up with the exact same number of women in the Legislature as we have now. But it is mathematically impossible to increase the number of women in the legislature. The greater likelihood is that some of these women will lose–and California’s ratio of women in the Legislature will go down. The 2012 survey of women candidates for county supervisors is even less optimistic. Even if women win every seat they are running for, the number of women county supervisors throughout California definitely will decline. There is no reliable data for city councils or school boards, but there is no indication that women are going to make substantial gains in those arenas, at least if Sacramento County is any indication.
So where does that leave us? In the short term, it means every individual who cares about getting more women in public office, especially feminist pro-choice women, needs to figure out what they can do between now and November 6th to help at least one candidate who fills that bill. If that person is in your area, you can volunteer in the campaign–walk precincts, make calls, help with mail, attend fundraisers, etc. For both local and non-local candidates, financial donations of any size are always appreciated.
The other short-term activity everyone must commit to is making sure you vote and encourage your family and friends to vote for any good woman candidate you can tell them about. Given the widespread use of mail ballots and the ability to register right up to the election, there is simply no excuse other than debilitating illness or death not to vote–not just this year but in every election. Voting is how we earn the democracy we live in–and not voting is what chips away at that democracy.
In the longer term, we have to find ways to increase our efforts to identify, recruit, support and elect women who care about the Caucus bottom line issues (not JUST those issues–but those issues as essential parts of their platforms). Although directly approaching and encouraging good women you know is helpful, and might even prod someone to take the plunge, the only effective way to do this in enough numbers to make a difference is through political and feminist organizations.
I think the National Women’s Political Caucus is a terrific venue for that, so a good start is to join the caucus. Whether you are new or already are a member, we need your help in Sacramento and elsewhere to build our capacity for developing candidates and getting them elected. If you want to learn more or ask specific questions, check this website for direct contacts.
Get involved! Don’t sit on the sidelines while the products of a century of women’s efforts are being threatened and the voices of women are being drowned out in the public arena. This isn’t just about us, it’s about future generations and even more about our future as a nation. American democracy needs to reflect the needs and concerns and hopes of ALL Americans, not just those who currently run it. With your help, we can move the nation toward that kind of democracy.