"Historically, we have centuries of catching up to do."
Hillary Clinton and Mary Thomas have little in common, except for this: They both hope to add to the meager ranks of America’s female elected officials come January.
You know about Clinton, but probably not Thomas — a conservative Republican, opponent of abortion and Obamacare, former general counsel of Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs. She’s running in Florida’s 2nd District to become the first Indian-American woman in Congress. It’s no easy task.
“There is still a good ol’ boys network that is in place,” she says, though she insists that “A lot of people see the value in having different types of people in Washington.”
Even as Clinton attempts to shatter what she has called “the highest, hardest glass ceiling,” other women like Thomas are testing other, lower ceilings. There are many: Women in the U.S. remain significantly underrepresented at all levels of elected office.
“Historically, we have centuries of catching up to do,” says Missy Shorey, executive director of the conservative-leaning Maggie’s List, one of a number of groups supporting female candidates.
Though women are more than half of the American population, they now account for just a fifth of all U.S. representatives and senators, and one in four state lawmakers. They serve as governors of only six states and are mayors in roughly 19 percent of the nation’s largest cities.
There has been progress; as recently as 1978, there were no women U.S. senators, and now there are 20. Still, there has been little headway since a surge of women won office in the 1980s and early 1990s. Sixteen states have fewer women serving in legislatures than in 2005, and five others have shown no improvement, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Advocates say the dearth of women officeholders has had consequences. They say women’s voices have been muted in local, state and national discussions of all issues, from climate change to foreign policy, but particularly of concerns important to women and working mothers: family leave, child care and abortion, for example. They point to instances where women in office have made a difference.
Kim McMillan was first elected as a Democrat to her seat in Tennessee’s House of Representatives in 1994 when she was 32 years old, a working mother of two children under the age of 3. More than once, she was told she couldn’t win because she was a woman. She eventually served six terms, rising to become the first woman majority leader. A major accomplishment: expansion of pre-kindergarten education around the state.
“I felt like I represented people who didn’t have any representation, working mothers like me,” says McMillan, now the first female mayor of Clarkesville, the fifth largest city in Tennessee.
Whether a Clinton win in November will inspire a new generation of female politicians remains to be seen. While the election of a woman as U.S. president would be unprecedented, at least 52 other countries around the world have had a female head of state in the last 50 years.
Female representation varies significantly around the U.S. Six states have never elected or appointed a woman to the U.S. House of Representatives, and 22 have never had a woman represent them in the U.S. Senate.
A major problem, activists say, is convincing women to run.
“We know that when women run for office, they win as often as men do,” says Debbie Walsh, executive director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “The number of women running isn’t going up, and so the number of women in office isn’t going up.”
A support network has been instrumental throughout Ellen Rosenblum’s career, beginning as a lawyer in Oregon and continuing as she was appointed a state court judge and later during her successful bid for state attorney general. Two of her early mentors were former Oregon Supreme Court Justice Betty Roberts and Barbara Roberts, the first woman elected governor of Oregon.
Rosenblum says she worked to pay it forward, helping to build up a statewide group of women lawyers. When it came to deciding in late 2011 whether to launch her first bid for statewide office, that same network was instrumental.
“I needed women to talk to, to make sure I was not completely out of my mind to do this,” says Rosenblum, who at the time had just retired as a judge.
In California, Hannah-Beth Jackson had long been active in her community beyond her work as a lawyer and former prosecutor, but it took the encouragement of one of her mentors to convince her to run for state Assembly in 1998.
“Women tend to ask permission, and we’re never quite sure we are good enough or ready enough,” she says.
Now in the state Senate, she is chairwoman of the powerful judiciary committee. Despite her influence and tenure, the Democratic lawmaker does not always succeed. Earlier this year, a bill she sponsored extending California’s family leave protections to small-business employees died in an all-male committee amid concerns of regulatory burdens.
She is undeterred.
“Let’s see what happens when I bring the bill back,” Jackson says. “Hopefully, that committee will have some women members.”