When asked, “How does it feel to be appointed because you are a woman?” Barbara Babcock, the first female assistant attorney general for the Civil Division in the U.S. Department of Justice, responded, “It’s better than not being appointed because I’m a woman.” Babcock’s answer indicates how women in politics are inevitably evaluated in light of their gender. In other words, women will win and lose as women.
Babcock’s comment also suggests that there is no such thing as a gender-free or “neutral” political playing field for women. Achieving parity will never be as simple as removing existing barriers, external and internal, to women’s political participation. Political equity requires affirmative institutional innovation that aims to bring more women into politics, as Jennifer Piscopo wisely argues.
But while getting more American women into politics is necessary, it is not sufficient for participatory parity. Political institutions are only as good as the norms and values of citizens and their representatives. Without transforming those of the existing system—specifically how we identify and evaluate masculine and feminine political behavior—electing more women is unlikely to make the U.S. political system more accountable to women. To put the point bluntly, masculine political identities are wrapped up in being superior to others, as opposed to being responsive to the needs of Americans (both male and female).
For this reason, we should mark the centennial of women’s suffrage by rethinking what democratic citizens desire for themselves and from their representatives. In particular, we need to reenvision the gendered expectations we have for representatives. The U.S. political system will then not only achieve more participatory parity but also produce a more accountable and responsive political system for all citizens.
To be sure, U.S. citizens have low expectations for their representatives. In fact, 74 percent of Americans believe that “most elected officials put their own interests ahead of the country’s.” Given this, many Americans only want to be entertained by their representatives. They have fallen into what I call name-brand populism, that is, a form of politics that forges an unhealthy alliance between U.S. consumerism and its populism. Consumerism reduces citizens’ duties to “shopping” for candidates. Candidates are chosen not for their policy positions but for their ability to raise citizens’ social status. Preferable candidates will make voters feel better off than others. We elect those who will “make American great again” by transforming the United States into a more exclusive club. This status-centered approach to politics means that the symbolic significance—how representatives make you feel—has displaced substantive representation, how representatives advance your policy preferences and interests.
Considering this, it is important to understand the symbolic significance of being ruled by women and how some representatives can increase their political status by putting women down. Notions of masculinity and femininity are, of course, diverse, dynamic, and complex. The ways that men and women navigate masculine and feminine identities in the world defy easy categorization. But, to the extent that notions of femininity are informed by past and present gendered divisions of labor, femininity can signify passivity and subordination to men. The gendered division of labor often assigns women to “invisible” underpaid care work, while men are assigned to roles that offer both higher prestige and higher remuneration. Consequently, femininity becomes associated with putting others first while masculinity is equated with having agentic power (e.g., the risk-taking associated with good leaders). Moreover, research shows that women are punished more when they behave in a manner inconsistent with gender stereotypes. In this way, the standards for being a good woman can seemingly be in tension with the aggressive, autocratic behavior expected of good representatives.
This observation flies in the face of those arguments that attribute the lack of women in politics to women’s unwillingness to run. For instance, Danny Hayes and Jennifer Lawless contend that “media and voter bias [against women in politics] are rarely present or consequential in most elections. As a general rule, they do little to keep women out of office.” For this reason, Hayes and Lawless maintain that the most effective strategy for getting more women into office is “making sure that potential candidates, journalists, political elites, and the public know that when women do run for office, they won’t face a unique set of additional barriers.”
Hayes and Lawless conclude that “candidate sex plays a minimal role in the vast majority of U.S. elections,” but that is too rosy. Such a conclusion ignores how political elites in other countries—who often unanimously supported gender quotas—take active steps to prevent getting more women into politics. Sometimes they change the name of male candidates to seem feminine. Sometimes they interpret “zero” to be a reasonable number of women in politics. In Brazil the number of women in the lower house of the National Congress went from 6.6 percent in 1998 to 5.7 percent in 2000 when Brazil adopted gender quotas in 1997. Indeed, Piscopo’s own research examined how Mexican parties would successfully run female candidates but would have these female winners step down immediately after winning to be replaced by men. These resigning women were known as “Juanitas.” This demonstrates the limitations of having women “just” win elections. What happens after the election is equally important for participatory parity.
Unfortunately, multiple sources report that the election of more women is increasingly accompanied by physical attacks, kidnappings, harassment, and sexual assaults of women in politics. Mona Lena Krook has argued that one aim of these attacks is to discourage women’s political participation. Deborah Brooks and Danny Hayes found that, paradoxically, when candidates face sexism, young people increase their campaign activism but young women feel less confident “in their own ability to run a political campaign.” In other words, simply calling out the sexism of the political arena can sometimes work against getting more women into politics.
The institutional innovation thus needs to go beyond taking affirmative steps to enable more women to exercise their right to run for office. It also needs to safeguard and protect those women in politics. And as Maggie Astor reports in the New York Times, there is currently no independent organization that formally tracks the incidents of harassment and threats made to female candidates in the United States. (Groups that work with female candidates do routinely provide personal safety training.) Of course, the takeaway point is not that women should stop going into politics, but that we need to understand why democratic citizens are so afraid of and angered by the idea of having women in positions of power.
For some men, having women in power is interpreted as a threat to their status. The extent to which some men can feel threatened by women entering male-dominated spaces was best captured by Winston Churchill’s reaction to the arrival of a female member of Parliament: “I find a woman’s intrusion into the House of Commons as embarrassing as if she burst into my bathroom when I had nothing with which to defend myself, not even a sponge.” Churchill’s comment reflects the deep emotional attachment men can have to male-dominated spaces and their perceived vulnerability to the political presence of women.
If some U.S. men feel alienated by the rule of women, so can some women. In particular, women in politics can also threaten the status associated with traditional gender roles such as the stay-at-home mom. Women fighting for political equality have often been interpreted by conservative women as “forcing women to work outside the home” and “stigmatizing stay-at-home moms.” Phyllis Schlafly argued in 1975 that the Equal Rights Amendment would result in women losing “the right to be provided with a home, to go to a single-sex college, and to stay home and be a mother.”
Without changing how we value masculine and feminine political identities—and how some citizens desire a gendered division of labor—U.S. politics will always favor those who dominate rather than care for others. So while I agree with Piscopo that the right to vote and the right to run for office are necessary for women to become true political peers, they are not sufficient. We are not going to be able to vote our way out of the gendered division of labor and the participatory inequity it generates. Voting and running for office will not change how masculine and feminine identities are policed and punished for transgressing gender norms. To truly realize participatory parity, American men and women will need to become brave enough to be led by those who care for their fellow citizens.