Women have made strides over the past 30 years in American politics, but those gains only rank American women 57th in the world as elected participants in their governments and legislation—well behind other western nations and countries like Rwanda where 48 percent of their legislative seats are filled by women.
The road to political office in the U.S. is fraught with obstacles for women. Some women have navigated the barriers to fill 17 percent of the seats in the U.S. Congress, but for many others these obstacles present real challenges to gaining office at state and national levels, according to Karen Beckwith, Case Western Reserve University political scientist. She is an editor of and contributing author to Political Women and American Democracy, published this month by Cambridge University Press.
Political Women and American Democracy explores the changing patterns of U.S. women's political involvement as citizens, voters, participants, movement activists, partisans, candidates and legislators. It addresses the political behavior and attitudes that create the gendered political process and how women's political presence has been structured within the American system.
The book also focuses on the study of women, men and gender in U.S. politics and how political scientists have advanced such study. Individual chapters, written specifically for the volume and addressing specifically U.S. democracy, include critical evaluations of research on gender as an analytical concept, women's political representation, women's movements, and women as candidates and elected officials.
Concluding the volume is Beckwith's chapter on questions still to be answered and suggestions for future research on women, gender and U.S. politics. The book does not address issues of public policy, women in the judiciary or women in the executive office (since no woman has yet succeeded to the presidency).
Political Women and American Democracy resulted from a collaborative project, first convened as a conference at the University of Notre Dame's Program on American Democracy in the 21st Century. The conference was funded by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
Women constitute a majority not only of the population in the United States, but of voters. Unlike ethnic, racial or religious minorities, women do not live together in concentrated areas and so geographically women are dispersed across the nation, which does not give them any advantage for electoral representation, said Beckwith. Women's political preferences, attitudes and partisan choices are heterogeneous and vary along race, ethnic and class lines.
For women, the road to office in the United States differs from those of other countries. In Britain, for example, Beckwith said, candidates for office in the Labour Party learn and earn their part in the political process by working their way, step-by-step, through the system to higher offices, contributing hours to the party and then undergoing candidate selection interviews and having one's name on the ballot after a lengthy selection process. Formal party rules and informal party practices have ensured that women are represented in the candidate selection pool.
Unlike many other countries, the U.S. does not have gender quotas or reserved seats, the most effective means of increasing the numbers of women elected to national legislatures, said Beckwith.
Several contributing authors summarize the scholarship on U.S. distinctness in its pattern of political development and gender, and the gendered nature of U.S. democracy.
In her chapter, contributing author and editor Lisa Baldez provides an explicitly comparative political analysis of women, gender and U.S. democracy, emphasizing features of other democratic political systems that encourage women's candidacies and election to office.
A major factor challenging all prospective candidates for the U.S. Congress is the incumbency effect. It disproportionately affects women, since most incumbent office-holders are men. Given an incumbency rate of more than 90 percent, incumbents are highly likely to be re-elected, hence sustaining disproportionate numbers of men in Congress.
According to Beckwith, research demonstrates that when incumbents retire or do not seek re-election, hence creating open seats, women have as good a chance of winning as do men. Research also suggests that women are not disadvantaged, compared to men, in terms of raising campaign funds.
When incumbents seek re-election, incumbent women face additional challenges within their party as well as in the opposing party. Research indicates that when women are successful in winning office, they activate a demonstration response, encouraging other women to run and to challenge the incumbents within their own party, as well encouraging female candidates from the opposing party.
"The incumbency effect for women is distinctive; it not only regenders the primary elections, but it also regenders the general election," said Beckwith.
Once elected, women do not necessarily vote along gender lines, Beckwith stated, but maintain partisanship in office and vote along party lines and what constituents want for their districts or states.
"Women generally are supportive of issues related to education, the economy, health care, child-related initiatives and are generally less supportive of military intervention than are men. But party allegiances also divide women, who often split to vote along party lines—primarily those of the Democratic Party, given that Democratic elected women outnumber Republican women two to one—not just in Congress, but in state legislatures," Beckwith said. "Given the partisan imbalance, Congressional politics are highly gendered."
Contributing authors to Political Women and American Democracy are Christina Wolbrecht, Gretchen Ritter, Leonie Huddy, Erin Cassese, Mary-Kate Lizotte, Nancy Burns, Jane Junn, Nadia Brown, Lee Ann Banaszak, Kira Sanbonmatsu, Kathleen Dolan, Beth Reingold, Suzanne Dovi and Lisa Baldez. Beckwith's co-editors are Christina Wolbrecht (University of Notre Dame) and Lisa Baldez (Dartmouth College). Beckwith and Baldez were the founding editors of Politics & Gender, the journal of the American Political Science Association's Women and Politics Research Section.
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