Lifting barriers to electing more women

Most Americans want a "change of scenery" in Congress, a Gallup poll finds. One possible reason? Recent scandals. With elections in November, it's time to really alter lawmaking – by removing stubborn barriers for women candidates.

By one measure, women are already doing well. The number of women running for Congress this year is up by 18 percent from just two years ago. But progress is still too slow to create a critical mass. At today's rate, it would take more than a century to reach gender parity in Congress.

This progress toward parity needs to speed up, as the United States is already falling behind globally. America ranks only 68th among nations in the percentage of women in lower national legislative chambers – a mere 15 percent. (This ranking doesn't compare apples to apples, though, as some nations mandate a minimum level of female participation.)

Increasing the number of women in Congress isn't just a matter of numbers, but of better representing half the country's population. Today's congresswomen, few as they are, often highlight issues of special significance to women. For example, the experience of many women as primary domestic caregivers led congresswomen to cosponsor the Family and Medical Leave Act and individual retirement accounts for homemakers.

To achieve real equal opportunity for women to run for office – and win – requires removing barriers. One is high campaign costs. Women have the skills for fundraising but often don't have as many business connections – i.e. cash sources – as their male opponents. Reducing the amount of money spent in campaigns would help lower the cost barrier for political outsiders – both men and women.

Arizona and Maine, for instance, have "clean election" options that allow candidates to receive state funding if they forgo special-interest contributions. Such public funds could be a particular draw for women. State lawmaker Nancy Smith (D) of Maine said she wouldn't have run in 2002 without the clean election option because fundraising against an incumbent seemed too difficult.

Political party leaders need to better recruit women to take the plunge down the political pipeline, which starts at the state and local levels. Of state legislative seats – the prime springboards to Congress – only 22 percent are occupied by women.

Women themselves need to show more initiative to run for public office. Only 11 percent of congresswomen first came up with the idea to run on their own compared with 37 percent of congressmen.

Finally, both political candidates and the media should stop stereotyping women. The latest example: US Rep. John Sweeney (R) of New York recently called a Democratic challenger, Kirsten Gillibrand, a "pretty face." The White House Project, a nonpartisan group that helps women advance in leadership, studied six gubernatorial elections in 1998 and found the media not only covered women candidates less, but also more personally and stereotypically.

With many challenges facing the US today, the government must take into greater account the unique needs of half of society and further tap into the talent of women leaders. •

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