Emory Report

May 3, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 30

First person:

Starkman believes 'feminization of power' needed in U.S.

Thousands of young school children pour into the statehouses of the nation every day to learn about their government and the people who make it happen. They tour the many hallways and sit in the impressive chambers while the leaders of their states make decisions that have impact on the country and the world. Oftentimes, they meet the people who represent their home districts and bring the concerns of their parents and neighbors to the table of governmental debate. Some of these children have their sights set on obtaining high office one day. A few tell their teachers that they want to be president.

Do the young girls realize that men far outnumber women in elected positions? Do they understand that they may well never see a legislative roster which reflects true parity in terms of gender? Do they know that they most likely will have to marry a future president if they want to live in the White House one day?

Children entering American statehouses during the past legislative session saw more women in elected positions than ever before. Following the November 1998 elections, record numbers of women now serve in state legislatures, statewide elected office and in Congress. While this sounds promising for aspiring women leaders of tomorrow, it must be considered in light of the entire political landscape. Women still constitute only 9 percent of the Senate, 13 percent of the House, 6 percent of governorships, 28 percent of statewide elected posts and 22 percent of state legislatures.

Women entered political races with astounding frequency in 1992, and as a result, the face of the United States government reflected more female attributes than ever before. The so-called Year of the Woman promised to hold open doors for women to take advantage of future political gains in leaps and bounds. A glance at the above statistics, however, proves that this was not to become reality. Seven years later there are still only nine woman senators, and the House is a resounding 87 percent male! Furthermore, the women who serve in Congress have made few strides to reach leadership positions within the two major parties.

The roots of the problem are many and the solutions complex. Women politicians have proven that they can raise the funds necessary to make bids for office and that they can win tough political contests by appealing to voters of both genders.

For women of childbearing years, though, the demands of political life often conflict with the needs of family. As a result, young women frequently are unable to participate at lower levels of government early in their careers in order to gain the necessary experience to become viable candidates for higher office. One hundred fewer women ran for state legislatures in 1998 than in 1992. If this number continues to decline, fewer women will be poised to take on the challenge of national government in the future.

Women need to be present in all levels of government because we bring a unique perspective to the table. Only women can weave into our nation's policies the remarkable worth of being female. Women bring a particular understanding of the experiences of girls in school, the expectations of motherhood, the struggle to balance family and career, the subtleties of gender discrimination and a host of other issues. The small number of women who have recently served in government have proven that so-called women's issues largely have been ignored by predominately male legislatures. Nonetheless, they have pushed the passage of reform in education and health care, the introduction of comprehensive sexual harassment policies and an increase in sexual violence statutes that will result in real punishments.

What is needed now is a coordinated effort on the part of national women's organizations to identify and encourage qualified women to enter into the political arena. Without drastic action, the numbers will remain stagnant, which means that American government will continue as a predominately male institution promoting male norms and policy decisions. Only the feminization of power will ensure that women's issues are brought to the fore of debate and that all gender experiences are included in public policy.

Perhaps when the daughters of the women of my generation enter a statehouse, they will see a more gender-balanced institution. Similarly, when they watch the news, perhaps the usual host of reporters will be scurrying after "Madame President."

Alicia Starkman is special program assistant at the Women's Center. This essay first appeared in the spring edition of "Women's News & Narratives," the center's newsletter.

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