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Jennifer Piscopo defines a pervasive problem in U.S. politics: women’s full inclusion in political power is stunted by their persistent underrepresentation as officeholders. She suggests that the solution must encompass positive action that promotes systemic, structural change—instead of putting the onus on women to remedy their own marginalization. She is right. But how can we respond to this call to action?
As Piscopo notes, it is difficult to imagine viable, realistic strategies for structural change to the U.S. electoral process. Gender quotas “aren’t directly translatable to the United States,” and “one quirk of the U.S. political system is that political parties do not control ballot access.” But this is not just a quirk; this is a significant challenge to the types of electoral reforms that have been implemented globally in party-centered systems to promote gender parity. The weakening of party influence in the U.S. system of party primaries only exacerbates this challenge; not only do parties have minimal say in who runs for nomination, but they have ceded the decision on who wins to voters in (mostly) winner-takes-all elections. Parties’ unwillingness to “play” in primary elections—whether through endorsements or financial support—removes another potential site for the type of positive action Piscopo proposes. Of course, there is no legal reason parties could not intervene at this stage to support women, but there is also no way to punish parties that do not.
Elsewhere in the world, financial incentives or sanctions are used to shape party behavior; the government can punish or reward political parties for promoting women’s inclusion by controlling the parties’ access to government funds. The role of outside (non-party and nongovernmental) money in U.S. politics means it is not possible to use campaign finance to enforce gender parity in candidate selection. These realities make applying solutions from other countries not only difficult, but also unlikely without a wholesale restructuring of how elections are run. On that front, remember that electoral rules vary across the fifty states, adding greater complexity to securing nationwide reforms.
Piscopo is aware of these challenges but rejects the idea that change is impossible. While I am slightly more pessimistic about the possibility of establishing women’s political representation as a positive right in the United States, I am slightly more optimistic than Piscopo about the efforts already underway to promote gender parity in government. In the face of obstacles, organizations committed to women’s political empowerment in the United States have sought solutions that match their country’s reality—just as the global activists Piscopo praises have done.
In the United States, that means much of the work to promote women’s recruitment and selection as candidates is focused on how to help women successfully navigate electoral structures imbued with gender bias. Sometimes that intervention is women-focused, such as efforts to encourage women to run for office in spite of the social, structural, and political hurdles. Like Piscopo, I am skeptical about an encouragement-centered approach; I have written elsewhere that encouragement, while shown to matter more for women than men in candidate emergence, is not enough. But the work of most of these groups is not limited to encouragement and can simultaneously address structural inequalities. For example, the Center for American Women and Politics’ (CAWP) Ready to Run training program focuses on giving women tools to successfully navigate the electoral system as it is. But it is also working on creating a network of women that can function as an alternative to a biased party system, and which can push that biased party system to do better at supporting women. In Ready to Run programs, organizers lobby party leaders to financially sponsor participants to attend the program, with varying degrees of success. Ready to Run also offers training for women to become party officials themselves. This work goes beyond “helping aspirant women pull themselves up by their electoral bootstraps” to seek disruption of the very structures that keep women down.
One of the clearest—and most effective—examples of this approach is EMILY’s List, an organization that has become a major player in candidate recruitment and success. EMILY’s List does not work to “fix women,” but instead to level structural inequalities that electorally disadvantage women. By creating a funding stream that goes only to pro-choice Democratic women, EMILY’s List helps mitigate the influence of money in U.S. elections. While at first acting as an alternative to political parties—giving women candidates the ability to succeed without party support—EMILY’s List has increasingly become an adjunct to the Democratic Party, influencing candidate recruitment by creating a financial incentive for the party to recruit and support women. It is not government-led, but this is positive action within the constraints of the U.S. system.
Piscopo is right in noting that these approaches still rely too heavily on helping women to successfully navigate a biased system instead of enforcing a positive right of women to be elected. Here, her proposal to advocate simultaneously for presence, power, and justice for women in electoral politics offer a smart path forward. But identifying how and where to implement those principles—in the face of U.S. resistance to various forms of affirmative action—is harder.
The most realistic structural reforms seem to be those that might disproportionately benefit women without imposing an explicit mandate for women’s inclusion. For example, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and various state-level entities have allowed candidates to use campaign funds to cover campaign-related childcare expenses. In March 2019, U.S. representative Katie Porter (D-CA) introduced the “Help America Run Act” to codify this practice into law for federal candidates. While these changes are not gender-specific, they can lower at least one hurdle on the path to candidacy for women.
Organizations such as RepresentWomen have also called for multimember districts in the United States, pointing to evidence of women’s greater success in these systems worldwide. Research I have done with colleagues Ulrik Kjaer and Susan Carroll suggests that expanding the size of governing bodies would benefit women at the local level, and the same principle would apply to expanding the size of the House. There is likely little public appetite to add more members to House ranks at a time when congressional approval is dismal, but this move would at least be possible with legislative action.
As we entertain possibilities for action that do not explicitly target women, however, we should remember previous electoral reforms that were presumed to address gender inequality in the United States. For example, while many assumed that women stood to benefit from state legislatures’ adoption of term limits, research analyzing the impact of term limits on women’s representation since 1990 has shown mixed results.
As with any movement for social and political change, the need for diverse tactics is key. Helping women navigate existing political systems, disrupting cultural biases that assume men are a better fit for politics and/or more electable, and advocating for systems-level change are all necessary in order to live up to expectations of just, fair, and legitimate representation in the United States. None of this work is easy, but nevertheless we persist.
Kelly Dittmar is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University–Camden and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. She is coauthor of A Seat at the Table: Congresswomen’s Perspectives on Why Their Representation Matters.
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