Women & Public Office

Terry O’Neill

BA Women &

November 13, 2015

by Terry O'Neill

I know people who fret that not enough millennials, especially millennial women, want to be engaged in the political process. But is that really surprising? Just consider the messages millennials receive on a daily basis: that the political system is broken and can never be changed, that government can't make people's lives better, that it's not even worth trying. That kind of negativity isn't just depressing, it's actually exclusionary. It operates like a classic power grab - discouraging newcomers from joining the conversation, with the result that insiders are left to make all the decisions, holding on to power for themselves and their friends.

This is especially disadvantageous for women. Women’s issues get on the agenda when lawmakers who understand them from personal experience are part of - or leading-the debate. From fighting for pay equity to standing up for women’s health, women in office can make an enormous difference. But a 2013 report by political scientists Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox called “Girls Just Wanna Not Run” found that only 37 percent of college women said they had considered running for office, compared to 57 percent of men.

women in congress

Lawless and Fox show how a “political ambition gender gap” can be influenced by, among other factors, the fact that young women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office from anyone - their parents, teachers, religious leaders and friends. They write,

Overall, 40 percent of male respondents, but only 29 percent of female respondents, reported encouragement to run for office later in life from at least one parent. Female respondents were also significantly more likely than their male counterparts to report that their parents would prefer them to pursue a career other than politics.

Women also face systemic barriers that need to be addressed. Most urgently, the gender and gender-race wage gaps leave women with less financial capacity to run, or to take any other kind of career risk. And millennial women are only too aware of the sexist attacks against women who put themselves on the line and run for office. Hillary Clinton, of course, is a prime example, having been called "nagging," "shrill," "a bitch," simultaneously too "cold" and too "emotional", the list goes on. But it turns out that when those kinds of attacks are called out for the sexist nonsense that they are, they backfire. A 2010 study found that

[T]he traditional advice given to women running for office - not to dignify sexist attacks by responding - is actually the wrong course of action. The female candidate's number went back up when voters heard the attacks called "inappropriate." The numbers went even higher if they were labeled "sexist, divisive rhetoric."

The good news is that there are many young women who do have political ambition and want to make a difference in their communities. My job, as President of the National Organization for Women, is to work to clear away the obstacles keeping them out. Other great organizations exist solely for that purpose include Running Start and Women Under Forty PAC (WUFPAC) and groups that help women generally include Emerge America and EMILY’s List.

women politics

Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY's List, told The Atlantic,

"Whether you see the gender gap in leadership as a reflection of innate or systemic roadblocks, getting more women to run for political office is the answer. Not only do women in elected office serve as role models for future generations to follow in their footsteps, they inspire a country to develop more women into leaders."

One career path leading to political office includes an internship in Washington, D.C.  An internship is a great experience in itself - but it's even better when an intern comes back to take her place at the table.  Because like the saying goes, when you're not at the table, you're likely to end up on the menu.

Terry O’Neill

Terry O’Neill, a feminist attorney, professor and activist for social justice, was elected president of the National Organization for Women(NOW) in June 2009. O’Neill oversees NOW’s multi-issue agenda, which includes: advancing reproductive freedom, promoting diversity and ending racism, stopping violence against women, winning lesbian rights, ensuring economic justice, ending sex discrimination and achieving constitutional equality for women. O’Neill holds a bachelor’s degree in French with distinction from Northwestern University and a law degree magna cum laude from Tulane University. She has one child, a daughter who is a proud feminist.

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