Peggy Drexler

(WOMENSENEWS)–The midterm elections delivered women a Thanksgiving horn of plenty.

A record 138 women just ran for congressional office. Across the country 2,433 women ran for state office, also a record. In South Dakota, a draconian abortion ban was heading toward a Supreme Court showdown until voters stepped up and reason prevailed.

While female representation only nudged up to about 16 percent of Congress, women ran for office in much larger numbers, and individual women attained new heights of power.

Hillary Clinton is now out there bobbing and weaving as the most-presidential presumptive candidate and Nancy Pelosi is about to be called Madame Speaker of the House. Having blasted through what she once called Washington’s "marble ceiling" Pelosi has left a gaping hole where others can follow.

But if anyone needs any reminder of the extent to which Pelosi, Clinton and all the other elected, re-elected or newly empowered women are joining an international game of political catch-up, check out the 2006 World Economic Forum’s new Global Gender Gap Report issued yesterday.

This year’s study looked at 115 countries, investigating four categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment, and health and survival.

The big change in methodology from past reports is to measure the relative size of the gender gap among the countries rather than a simple comparison of situations, an approach that does not penalize less-developed economies.

United States Ranks 29

By this new measure, the United States has dropped from an already laggardly 17 in the international rankings to an unbelievable 29.


Well, the United States did fine in health and survival, sharing the No. 1 spot with 33 countries.

The United States came in a solid third place in economic participation and opportunity.

But then came the whammies: 65 in educational attainment and a 93 in political empowerment.

That’s right: 93! That puts us just behind Chad and just ahead of Morocco, a strange neighborhood for the leader of the free world.

The reason is clear. Women make up half the population and account for more than half the voters. Yet here we are, in 2006, applauding female representation that has just nudged over 16 percent. And unlike a growing list of other countries with female leaders–soon to possibly include France–we are still debating the idea of a female president.

Progress Tastier Than Loss

But, progress is still tastier than loss. And it brews more hope.

As representation goes up, our voice goes louder; on everything from a living wage to child care to insurance to keeping Plan B available in pharmacies and expanding its access to younger women who are still not able to buy it.

Female representation is also important for another major reason: expanding political empathy for the daily family struggles of low-income working women, particularly mothers.

In March, the Center for Worklife Law, a research and advocacy group, issued a report called "One Sick Child Away From Being Fired: When Opting Out Is Not an Option."

It found that while white-collar women had a degree of flexibility in balancing work and family life, others did not.

It documented case after case where leaving a few minutes early to handle a family situation was a firing offense.

The report called it a "black hole" in policy among legislators who think work-family balance is a white collar, quality-of-life issue.

If anyone can relate to the plight of work-life imbalance it would seem to be female candidates for political office.

Campaigns Simulate Off-Balance Life

Any woman who wages a campaign without a net will get an object lesson in life for women working in lower paying, low- or no-benefit jobs, where no one particularly gives a damn about the balance between their work life and home life.

Campaigns do not come with a flextime option. There is no family leave. No job sharing. No on-site child care. For most women, the price of running for office is personal and family sacrifice. Blue-collar women everywhere can say: "Welcome to my world."

The loud crack you’ll hear the day Pelosi is sworn in as Speaker of the House is the sound of ambition breaking free and hopes becoming real; proving, as she once said, "We can breathe the air at this altitude."

Pelosi’s breakthrough–along with the women who are certain to take the lead of committees and all the women who gained campaign experience this year–combine to create a great upward draft that is certain to pull still more women into the political process.

As drafts go, however, it will have to be very strong to really change the realities for women.

When the next Global Gender Gap ranking comes out next year, we can measure just how strong it turns out to be.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. She is the author of "Raising Boys Without Men" (Rodale, 2005) and can be reached at

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For more information:

World Economic Forum, Global Gender Gap Report 2006:

"Work-Life Imbalance Acute for Hourly Wage Parents":

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