“At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.”
Although the Honorable Shirley Chisholm spoke these words over forty years ago as the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress, her words ring as loudly and true today as they did when she was elected in 1968.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics, Rutgers University, as of 2017, only 19% of members of the US Congress are women, and women comprise just roughly one quarter of State legislatures across the nation, at 24.8%. While these numbers are notably higher than in Shirley’s time in Congress, which was less than 10%, the number is still abysmally low in comparison to the number of women in the US, who comprise half the population.
So what keeps more women from running for office? While there are various factors, the most common reasons include perceived lack of experience, women thinking they are unqualified, motherhood, and societal expectations of a woman’s place in the home. In fact, despite rising levels of educational and professional achievement, women are still responsible for the majority of home and family care. A portion of women even leave the workplace altogether, despite educational and professional attainment, to take care of home. Further, for young women, the fear of lack of experience due to young age and entry level work experience can be a deterrent for seeking public office or even higher career advancement.
However, these challenges do not make women unqualified or even underqualified to run for office, but rather uniquely qualified, as women regularly exercise some of the most critical skills necessary for holding public office. These include communication skills, project management skills, and team building skills.
As primary caregivers, women must constantly communicate to their children, often using words and tones to effectively relay the message to fit their audience, which is critical when talking with diverse groups of constituents and even adverse legislators. The same holds true for working women who may need to tailor their words to explain their thoughts and ideas in the workplace in ways that men are not asked to do. Women also possess important project management skills in both the home and office, balancing family budgets and errands along with work tasks and deadlines, and even school schedules and assignments for their kids and themselves as well. Additionally, women possess key team building skills, often delegating tasks to family members and friends, effectively enlisting help with work and household chores as needed, which is critical in building strong coalitions to increase success in implementing solutions to problems.
With no political experience, voters judge candidates based on their personal records. Women use these skills as an everyday necessity of their lives, making up for any lack of experience, which doesn’t guarantee attaining or using these skills in practice. Furthermore, even with lack of political experience, women are more educated than men, recently surpassing them in earning college degrees, in spite of persistent lack of equal pay for equal work. This holds particularly true for black women, who earned bachelors degrees at a 60% completion rate as of 2013, higher than any other group.
Women have the education, skills, and population necessary to run for and win public office, and there is no better time than now to put those resources to use. Not only are the current numbers an inadequate representation of the population, but legislatures across the nation, as well as the current presidential administration, have implemented bills and orders negatively affecting women, with little to no input from women. Think of our now president signing an executive order affecting women worldwide, only three days into his administration, surrounded by men. Finally, some of the most hot button political issues such as defunding planned parenthood and repealing the Affordable Care Act directly impact women and children more than others, so it is up to us to protect ourselves and our families by getting involved in our politics at every level.
As the Honorable Ms. Chisholm reminded us, “We must reject not only the stereotypes that others have of us but also those that we have of ourselves.” We must be the catalysts for change in our communities and our nation by embracing what makes us uniquely qualified to run for office and be a powerful force in our political process.