Life's a Party; Do Political Parties Help or Hinder Women?

By Sanbonmatsu, Kira | Harvard International Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Life's a Party; Do Political Parties Help or Hinder Women?


Sanbonmatsu, Kira, Harvard International Review


When we think about the scarcity of female politicians, social and cultural explanations usually come to mind. We think about the constraints of traditional gender roles, inequalities in women's socioeconomic status, and the dearth of women candidates. In other words, we tend to think about candidate supply. In doing so, we often neglect the demand for women candidates. But we need to ask: are political parties recruiting, nominating, and supporting women candidates?

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Because of their role in candidate selection, parties arc crucial to women's election to office. Parties arc particularly important in closed-list proportional representation systems. But parties matter even in countries with comparatively weak political parties such as the United States. A focus on the United States is instructive for this reason. The existence of primaries in the United States can curtail a party's ability to control the nomination, particularly if the party remains neutral during the primary contest. Yet even in the United States, parties recruit and endorse candidates and discourage candidates from running.

Too often, political parties have been an obstacle that women must overcome. But the US case suggests that women's organizations and movements, women leaders, and women voters are the keys to making parties a help rather than a hindrance to women's representation.

Women and Political Parties in the United States

The feminist scholar Jo Freeman has characterized women's inclusion in US parties as a long struggle for recognition--a story not unlike that of women around the world. Historically, the major parties were obstacles to women's advancement in US politics. The opposition of both the major parties--the Republicans and Democrats--to women's suffrage helps explain why the fight for suffrage was such a long one. Women's rights activists called for the vote in 1848, and over the next half century, women were gradually able to win voting rights in some states. But it would not be until 1920 that women as a class would achieve the vote. On the eve of women's enfranchisement, both parties became interested in winning women's votes and worked to incorporate women into party committees. But neither party sought to elect women to office, and women did not wield significant influence within either party. Through much of the 20th century, women candidates were often sacrificial lambs: they won party support for races the party was likely to lose.

Today, the electoral competitiveness of women candidates in legislative elections arguably means that the parties are no longer averse to fielding women candidates. Barbara Burrell of the University of Northern Illinois contends that the parties have been very supportive of women candidates and proposes that strengthening the political parties would improve women's representation.

Nonetheless, women's numerical representation in US politics lags behind comparable democracies. Data from the Center for American Women and Politics (GAWP) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University shows that women constitute less than one-quarter of all state legislators and only 17 percent of members of Congress. In recent years, the presence of women in elective office has stagnated. Moreover, the ability of women to win office appears to depend on geography. CAWP's data shows that women are nearly 40 percent of state legislators in some states. In other states, though, women are fewer than 10 percent. If women arc reaching office--or not reaching office--we need to look at the role of parties to help us understand why. Why were women 54 percent of voters in the 2008 elections but only 24 percent of state legislators?

New CAWP Report on U.S. State Legislators

We recently conducted a survey of state legislators from all 50 states in order to understand the flagging numbers of female elected officials.

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Life's a Party; Do Political Parties Help or Hinder Women?
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