Sheila Sisulu

WASHINGTON, D.C. (WOMENSENEWS)–Thirty years into the women’s political movement, there is a worrisome drop-off in the number of women running for office. Strategies to usher more women into the political pipeline was the focus of a conference sponsored earlier this month by the bipartisan White House Project.

Women are nowhere near parity in politics in this country, unlike the continuing breakthroughs made in fields of law and medicine since the early 1970s, said the conference’s experts. By way of contrast, women from other nations explained the steps they took to successfully raise the number of women holding public office.

“It’s been a story of stagnation,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Women have barely held their early 1990s gains in Congress with 13 percent in the Senate and 14 percent in the House. For the first time in three decades, fewer women were elected to state legislatures.

Internationally, women are moving ahead. Women hold at least 30 percent of parliamentary seats in 11 countries, 17 are heads of state and 22 are speakers of parliaments. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will chair a new coalition of 350 women holding cabinet posts.

The United States appears to have hit a plateau in 59th place out of 181 nations with women elected to national legislatures. The falloff comes as Rutgers center is documenting how women bring different priorities and agendas to the table, in both parties.

“Republican women are more likely than Democratic men to have worked on legislation to benefit women,” said Walsh.

Women also have overcome significant barriers in fundraising and in “credibility” issues. They do as well as men, when they run, added Walsh and Democratic consultant Donna Brazile.

Women from France to South African Gaining Seats

Women from France, India, Sweden, England and South Africa described the “positive actions” used to get more women into politics, including quotas and changes in the constitution.

In South Africa, women who had been mainstays of the African National Congress’ movement against apartheid formed a national women’s party when rebuffed on guarantees of seats in Parliament in the early 1990s.

“We will not be midwives to the birth of a free South Africa. We will be there as equal partners in the creation,” Sheila Sisulu recalls telling the party’s men.

Today, 119 women hold seats in Parliament, putting South Africa in 11th place on the global women-in-politics ranks. “We don’t have to be superwomen. We don’t have to do it all by ourselves. We can make alliances, including with men, to make us effective,” Sisulu said.

After 55 years of democracy, Indian women held only 8 percent of parliamentary seats in 1989. The constitution was changed to reserve one-third of village council seats for women and 1.3 million now hold those posts. Applying the quota principle to the national parliament is proving a harder sell, said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research.

In 1996, impatient at the slow pace of women in French politics, Yvette Roudy recruited five women from the left and five from the right of French politics who caused shock waves with their “Manifesto of the Ten,” calling for more women in politics.

Socialist leader Lionel Jospin required women to be slated in 30 percent of his party’s seats; today, women hold 16 percent of socialist seats. The constitution was changed in 1999 to require parity of “results.” That worked especially well for city council seats, where women went from 25.5 percent to today’s 47.5 percent. Nationally, however, parties are paying penalties rather than recruit an equal number of women.

Roudy also noted that all of the women asked: “‘Is there a place where I can go to be trained?’ Not a single man asked me that. I said to the women, ‘Please, you must be more daring.'”

That resonated with the experience of Marjorie “Mo” Mowlam, the British parliamentarian who helped broker the Good Friday peace agreement for Northern Ireland. What she learned from her government work was “confidence,” she said. “Some politicians learned it at Oxford or Cambridge;” women usually learn it on the job. Mentoring other women also is crucial since “the ‘boys club’ still operates . . . and they look after each other but not us.”

U.S. political consultants and analysts differed as to whether rule changes could jump-start a new movement of women into U.S. politics. Georgia Duerst-Lahti, Beloit College’s political science chair, and Bob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, said options should be explored to local winner-take-all electoral rules.

A woman’s party, as in South Africa, was not seen as a viable alternative. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that would guarantee a Republican victory. She said 59 percent of the Democratic Party primary voters are women. “We should take back our party.”

Quotas, such as those imposed in other nations, also were thought not to be right for U.S. politics.

“You have to increase a woman’s effectiveness, not restrict it by saying she got in office by getting special favors,” said Republican consultant Linda DiVall.

Political consultant Brazile called for extending voting hours, moving voting booths closer “to wherever women are–child care centers, beauty parlors, closer to home” and recruiting women candidates even for difficult seats.

“We have to think out of the box. Change will not come automatically. We need a bold strategy,” she said. “We have to stop waiting for someone to give us a chair–bring a folding chair.”

Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, remained skeptical that electoral reforms, let alone quotas, would guarantee more women ran for office. “Progress will be one woman at a time–with basic recruitment and support.”

Peggy Simpson is a free-lance writer based in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

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Center for American Women and Politics:

Equal Rights Amendment Introduced Again

WOMENSENEWS–New York Democrat Rep. Carolyn Maloney introduced the Equal Rights Amendment Wednesday in the hope that 2003 would be the year that the 80-year-old civil rights bill would become law.

The bill would amend the Constitution to guarantee female citizens equal rights with men and thereby bar judges, executives and lawmakers from being able to roll back civil rights gains made over the course of the century. First introduced in 1923, the bill passed Congress 30 years ago but fell short of winning ratification from two-thirds of the states by the 1982 deadline.

“The ERA is gaining momentum and 2003 should be its year to come of age,” Maloney said in a press release. “We owe it not only to our daughters, our sisters, and our mothers–we owe it to our sons, our brothers and our fathers to finally guarantee equality. When a woman suffers inequality, her entire family suffers. Eighty years is long enough.”

Some 186 lawmakers co-sponsored the bill, including four non-voting delegates. That’s 36 votes short of the majority needed for Congressional passage. The list includes 45 of the 61 women in Congress as well as 141 men.

At the end of the last congressional session, 211 lawmakers, including four non-voting members, had signed on to the bill–the highest number of supporters in more than two decades. Proponents of the bill expect to have at least that many supporters this time around.

Even if the bill’s supporters reach the critical mark of 218 full voting members, they still must persuade what will likely be a reluctant House Majority Leader, Rep. Tom DeLay, to schedule a vote on the bill. To become law, the Senate and President George W. Bush would then have to sign the bill by the end of the 108th Congress and at least 38 state legislatures would have to pass it.

— Allison Stevens