When COVID-19 paralyzed the globe in April 2020, Donald Trump swaggered about the White House telling falsehoods while New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, held a special press conference to reassure the nation’s children. Canny observers have noted that the places with low case numbers and more effective policy responses—from Germany to Taiwan—are led by women. It is no accident that these states are also strong and wealthy democracies, with capable bureaucracies and high levels of institutional trust. Though women leaders historically have governed countries both rich and poor, democratic and nondemocratic, today women head some of the world’s most influential democracies.
The places with low COVID-19 case numbers and more effective policy responses—from Germany to Taiwan—are led by women.
In the United States, by contrast, presidential contender Elizabeth Warren made scant headway with her policy wonkiness, losing the Democratic Party nomination. Men’s dominance of the country’s highest political office will remain intact, even as many women chip away at the lower levels. In an iconic 2017 image of the Trump administration, an all-male, all-white group of Republican lawmakers discuss repealing the Affordable Care Act—including benefits for pregnancy and maternity care. The photo neatly captured the exclusionary politics that angered so many women. This exclusion—along with feelings of threat, urgency, and anger—drove a record number of women to run in the 2018 midterms. Two hundred and fifty-seven women (including an unprecedented number of women of color) contested races for the House and Senate, seventy-five more than in 2016.
This surge in women candidates was seen as a “good thing” by 61 percent of Americans. Despite the sexism many women candidates still face, and the failure to elect a woman to the presidency, the U.S. public seems enthusiastic about having women in elected office. This preference echoes an increasingly global sentiment that women’s political representation is key to the proper functioning of democracy. Around the globe, more women in office is associated with greater trust in government.
The converse is also true. Recently, Piscopo and colleagues Amanda Clayton and Diana Z. O’Brien showed that women’s absence from government makes Americans view government as less democratic. When presented with the options of an all-male legislative committee and a gender-balanced committee, respondents perceived the “manel” to be less fair, less trustworthy, and less legitimate. This preference held even when the manel wasn’t deliberating on women’s issues. Even Republicans and especially men preferred the gender-balanced panel. Despite our political polarization, it seems we can all agree that women’s exclusion from decision-making bodies is undemocratic.
And yet, in the United States, which this year celebrates the centennial of women’s suffrage, little attention has been paid to women’s officeholding as a political right, not to mention the benefits that follow for society and politics. A nearly exclusive focus on voting rights leads to an unbalanced perspective about what constitutes democratic representation. By contrast, the Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World” ranking system includes both whether “adult citizens enjoy universal and equal suffrage” and whether women are “allowed to register and run as candidates.”
Feminist scholars and women’s movements across the globe have argued that women’s absence from elected positions corrodes democracy. They challenge: Can democracy without women even be called democracy?
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Despite our political polarization, it seems we can all agree that women’s exclusion from decision-making bodies is undemocratic.
Scholars have traditionally described democracy as something that unfolded in three distinct global waves. The so-called first wave of democracy—from the mid-nineteenth century to the years immediately following World War I—occurred when countries ended voting restrictions that affected lower-class men. Countries removed property and literacy restrictions on voting, but these changes only benefited men, and sometimes only men from the country’s majority racial, ethnic, or religious group. After World War II, a second wave of democracy followed, which featured decolonization in Africa and Asia, as well as the expansion of women’s suffrage. When the Soviet Union fell in 1989, it fueled a third wave of democratization, which engulfed not just Eastern Europe but also Latin America, as the region shed its military dictators and ended its civil wars. These changes were so dramatic that public intellectual Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history: democracy was now the only game in town.
Setting aside the question of whether the wave analogy best captures historical and political trends, it is indisputable that marking democratic progress in this fashion bears little connection to women’s rights. As political scientist Pamela Paxton notes, the dates of democratic transitions would look very different “if one simply substitutes the requirement of female suffrage for male suffrage.” Countries such as the United States and France were celebrated for becoming democracies even before the first wave, but they didn’t enfranchise women until 1920 and 1944, respectively.
And this scholarly trend of ignoring women’s place in democracy continues. As recently as 2016, a retrospective on the third wave of democratization in the Annual Review of Political Science examined the role of civil society in supporting democratic institutions and asked whether societies with deep ethnic or religious divides could sustain their newfound trust in competitive elections—but never mentioned women or gender equality at all.
At the same time, women’s and feminist movements have worked tirelessly to point out—with increasing urgency—that the franchise alone has not improved women’s lives or status. Historically, the easiest route for women to gain elected office was to be appointed by a man, particularly to fill the seat of a departing or deceased husband, father, or brother. By the mid-twentieth century, women began seeking election in their own right, often encountering formidable barriers such as financial obstacles, gender stereotypes, and outright intimidation and violence.
For example, a state legislator from the Midwest elected in the 1970s privately told Shames that she was forced to attend committee meetings at the local Playboy Club—a way for the men on the committee to discourage her participation. A study of state legislators’ behavior showed that the resistance and rudeness of men toward their women colleagues extended to formal spaces, such as committee hearings. In her autobiography, 24 Years of House Work—and the Place Is Still a Mess (1998), Colorado congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who served from 1973 to 1997, recounts numerous sexist incidents from her time in office. One powerful white male committee chair once made her share a seat with fellow junior committee member Ron Dellums (a black man), saying that Schroeder and Dellums each constituted half a person.
Through their participation in pro-democracy movements worldwide, women labored to make gender equality central to those struggles.
Democracy, in other words, was failing women. Against an international backdrop of democratization and decolonization, academics and activists across the globe called attention to their own exclusion. Through their participation in pro-democracy movements worldwide, women labored to make gender equality central to those struggles. In the late 1980s, for instance, Chilean feminists mobilizing against the Pinochet dictatorship asked for “democracy in the country and in the home.” In demanding an end to the gender stereotypes that kept women relegated to the private sphere, these women demanded greater access to politics, especially as candidates.
In many places, democratization led to gender quotas—laws that require political parties to run certain percentages of women candidates or to reserve seats in their legislatures for women. Between 1991 and today, over seventy countries across the globe adopted these measures. Each quota law had its own unique path to enactment, but feminist organizing is a common denominator in all, with activists insisting on the connection between women in government and the quality of a democracy. In India in the early 1990s, for example, feminists rallied around the slogan, “Democracy without women is not democracy.” The resulting seventy-third amendment to the Indian constitution, passed in 1992, reserves 33 percent of village-level political offices for women. (A bill to reserve seats for women at the national level is still pending.) Women in Russia made the same argument as communism collapsed around them. And in Latin America, feminists secured quotas by arguing, “Without women, there is no democracy.”
But even quotas may not be enough. Mo Mowlam, a fiery British feminist politician of the 1990s, recognized the distinction between being in the room and influencing the room: “It is not enough for women to be in politics, they must be in power.” (Mowlam would know; she was instrumental in brokering the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles.) Now across the globe, parity is the new watchword. Democracy, it is argued, is not served by a 30 percent quota that introduces one or two women onto the manel, but via parity mandates that create gender balance. In 2011, for instance, Tunisia elected its constitutional assembly using parity rules, and the elections resulted in 31 percent women seated in the room.
Recently Chilean feminists—as organized in 2019 as they were in 1989—joined months of protests against the incumbent right-wing government. The protests paused once the political elite agreed to call a constitutional assembly, and women legislators and feminist activists demanded the assembly be comprised of half men and half women. They stood outside congress chanting, “We are half of the population, and for this reason, we want parity.” Their online campaign used the hashtag #nuncamassinmujeres—“never again without women.” They won. If the citizen assembly is approved in the October 2020 referendum, Chile will not only use parity rules when electing its body, but also redistribute seats after the election to guarantee gender balance in the assembly itself.
The push for quotas and now parity comes from a belief that the more women in office, the less chance their voices can be marginalized by those who have traditionally made the rules. The more women, the thinking goes, the more power itself is democratized.
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Nonetheless, the historical association of politics with men and masculinity remains strong. Voters like women once they are already in office, but much less so when they are seeking it. Campaigns require that women engage in counter-stereotypical behavior, such as showing off their ambition and their smarts, or talking negatively about opponents. Both Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren received accolades as senators, but countless op-eds during their presidential campaigns lamented their low likability. A man talking assertively is leading, but a woman doing the same is seen as hectoring.
A man talking assertively is leading, but a woman doing the same is seen as hectoring.
In working to sever the links between politics, men, and masculinity, feminists often find that appeals based on simple fairness or women’s citizenship fall short. Women have equality on paper, after all, and so some argue that women’s absence from politics result not from discrimination, but from women’s and men’s “naturally” different capabilities and interests. In fact, many nineteenth-century suffragists premised their claims to the franchise on equal rights and equal citizenship but pivoted by the twentieth century to claiming the franchise based on women’s difference. Suffragists argued, for instance, that women were “by nature” housekeepers who would “clean up” politics. So-called natural differences became leveraged for political good.
Much of the modern movement for women’s political inclusion continues to favor consequence-based arguments—that is, arguments about the difference women will make. “Women will change the nature of power rather than power changing the nature of women,” pioneering feminist and congresswoman Bella Abzug claimed in the 1970s. The enthusiasm for having women in office is almost always braided with the hope that maybe, just maybe, political outcomes will be different. Perhaps the United States will finally have paid maternity leave and lower maternal mortality rates, for example. Or perhaps credible evidence of sexual misconduct could actually be enough to keep harassers off the Supreme Court and out of the White House.
These consequence-based arguments have the advantage of being backed by empirical data. Across the globe, women politicians deliver more to their constituents: they introduce more bills (especially when in the majority party), attend more sessions, bring home more pork, and deliver more public goods. In India, women’s presence in local councils is associated with villages receiving more investment in infrastructure, such as drinking water.
The National Women’s Law Center reported that U.S. women state legislators in 2018 and 2019 wrote more bills than men, had more of their bills enacted, and were more likely to write policy on paid family leave, childcare, sexual harassment, and minimum wage. Women of color in state legislatures likewise advocate more strenuously for education, health, and poverty-related measures than do white men and men of color. Importantly, though, studies finding that women perform better in office may show a selection effect rather than a sex effect: if women face higher hurdles to winning elections, because they must prove their mettle, then women who win are likely better and more competent than the men.
Even having women run for office benefits the functioning of a democracy. In the United States, men tend to know more about politics than women, but when a woman is running, this political knowledge gap shrinks or even disappears for that state or district. Women politicians also inspire higher levels of political participation among all citizens, but especially among women and girls. As the number of U.S. citizens represented by women in Congress or in gubernatorial office increases, the participation gap (in voting, donating money, working for a political campaign, and other political activities) between men and women closes.
Across the globe, women politicians deliver more to their constituents: they introduce more bills, attend more sessions, and deliver more public goods.
Seeing women in office makes women aspire to political careers and makes them believe they can govern. This role-model effect also increases women citizens’ external efficacy (the feeling that one has the power to change things politically). This effect persists even among women living in districts without women representatives. As political theorist Jane Mansbridge has written, women’s presence as candidates and officeholders changes our sense of who has the “ability to rule.”
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In the end, fairness and consequence-based arguments are bound up together. When it comes to the positive effects of having women in office, both ends of the political spectrum can supply a rationale for why that’s the case. For conservatives, it stems from women’s greater morality; for progressives, it is because women have proved their worth and are more likely to espouse liberal values. Either way, the claim that “without women there is no democracy” resonates across partisan and ideological divides. The truth of this claim does not depend on seeing “women” as a biologically determined category. Nor does it necessitate treating women as a homogenous group.
Rather, “more women, more democracy” tells us that, when women are absent, something fishy is going on. Nancy L. Cohen summarizes this insight when she writes, “Shoring up men’s traditional prerogatives and putting women in their place are tried-and-true weapons in the autocrats’ arsenal.” From Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, authoritarians celebrate machismo, denigrate the troublesome women who defy them, and appoint male-dominated governments to restore the country’s (alleged) lost glory. Plenty of women espouse anti-democratic attitudes, but removing women from power and sending them back to the domestic sphere is part of the dictator’s playbook.
Women’s presence signals an ongoing commitment to democracy’s ideals of inclusion.
Women’s presence thus points to the overall health of democracy, an outcome that matters regardless of whether one cares about women getting elected. Ensuring women have an equal amount of power can guard against democratic decay. Conversely, women’s presence signals an ongoing commitment to democracy’s ideals of inclusion. Look no further than Chile’s new constitutional assembly and the Chilean women who demanded gender parity in order to recreate their democracy. As the tide of democracy seems to be ebbing and even reversing, both in the United States and abroad, this commitment to gender parity is an important and too-often overlooked form of resisting authoritarian turns. On the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States, it is time to consider the rallying cry: “Without women there is no democracy.”