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Women Advance in U.S. Politics


Senator Hillary Clinton's high-profile campaign to become the Democratic Party's presidential nominee energized women and opened the door wider for their political participation in the United States. But many analysts say the nation has a long way to go before achieving gender parity in elective offices across the country.

Senator Hillary Clinton was not the first woman in U.S. history to seek the presidency, although many analysts say her campaign gave women a big boost up the political ladder. Suffragette Victoria Woodhull ran for the White House in 1872, even before women in the U.S. could vote. A hundred years later, U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman to run in the Democratic Party's primary elections, and Representative Patricia Shroeder and Senator Elizabeth Dole explored presidential bids in the 1980s.

Carroll Doherty, Associate Director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in Washington, says opinion polls show that Senator Clinton's campaign has reignited debate over the role of gender in politics and the possibility of electing a woman president of the United States.

"We asked right before the campaign began whether people thought, in principle, 'Was it a good thing, a bad thing, or it didn't matter electing a woman to be president?' A third [of the respondents] said it was a good thing. Only nine percent said it was actually a bad thing. Most people said it wouldn't matter. And I think that, in historical terms, is fairly significant, especially if you look back at the 1970s and 1960s. Opinion polls at the time said many Americans had a problem voting for a woman simply because of her gender," says Doherty. "That didn't seem to be the case for the most part during this campaign."

Numbers and Perceptions

The number of women in elective office across the country has increased slowly over the years. The first U.S. Congresswoman was elected in 1916. And in 1922, the first woman was elected to the Senate. Last year, a woman became speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time.

But Susan Carroll of Rutgers University's Center for American Women and Politics in New Jersey says the number of women in various U.S. political offices remains small relative to their share of the electorate, which is about 54 percent of registered voters.

"There's actually an interesting inconsistency in the sense that women, ever since 1980, have been outvoting men in terms of their rate of voter turnout. And yet, that's not true when it comes to the level of holding public office, where women in state legislature are just under a quarter of state legislators. And women in [the U.S.] Congress and at the gubernatorial level hold about 16 percent of all positions," says Carroll. "So we're really talking about a situation where we are a long way from parity, if one considers 50 percent to be parity."

Carroll adds that the disparity has to do with social perceptions of women and the way women perceive themselves when participating in traditionally male areas. That is not to say that women lack self-esteem, notes Carroll, since they often excel in their chosen fields, but that politics traditionally is a masculine domain.

"And so I think women are often reluctant to move into that sphere and I often think that there must be something special that you have to know to run for political office. When you talk to political women, they see themselves as not necessarily qualified to run for office," says Carroll. "Then they go to a city council meeting and look at the people who are there and say, 'I could do this.' And often, it is because they have been motivated by a particular cause and, as they get involved, they see that they each have the capability to be in positions within politics."

Challenges Ahead

According to some experts, men are more forthcoming in fielding themselves as political candidates, while women are more likely to need encouragement to run for office. Some analysts say this is partially due to social trends, backgrounds and stigmas.

However, highly-visible female politicians tend to mold the next generation of women, says sociologist Pamela Paxton of The Ohio State University.

"We know from research done in the U.S. and research done around the world that young girls, adolescent girls, are influenced by images of women in politics. Young adolescent girls express more interest in politics and political careers for themselves when they see either high numbers of women in parliament -- that's done around the world -- or in the U.S., if they see highly visible female politicians," says Paxton.

Some analysts maintain that both men and women are slowly moving toward a more favorable view of women who run for office in the United States.

But political scientist Susan Carroll of Rutgers University says that while new female candidates often encounter financial challenges, they also have to surmount other hurdles that face all American politicians.

"Women perceive that they will have greater difficulty raising money. And there's some evidence that at the very early stages of proving one's viability as a candidate, that's in fact the case. Part of it is because you have gatekeepers who have some influence through funding or the political parties who actually have enormous influence on who's considered to be a viable candidate," says Carroll. "And then, we have a political system where incumbents are greatly advantaged. For members of Congress, the reelection rate is over 90 percent."

Women in the U.S. have a long way to go, says Jo Freeman of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. But she expects women who were inspired by Hillary Clinton's campaign to make political inroads in the United States and abroad.

"We have been making steady progress for the last 30, 35 years. But the American campaign for president gets publicity all over the world, so anyone who pays any attention to the news knows that a woman ran for president and came very close to getting the Democratic [Party] nomination," says Freeman. "So I think that it is going to reverberate throughout the world."

Although women political contenders in the United States often have to fight harder to be elected, most analysts say they are closer today to political parity than at any other time in U.S. history.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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