Last week marked a historic moment for women in American politics. It’s important to remember, though, that there are many other levels of elected office in the country where women haven’t been able to make many big gains for a long time. Women make up less than 20 percent of Congress, and less than 25 percent of state legislatures. These numbers haven’t budged for ages.
We talked to Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, to get some important context about what awaits us in the general election — and found out why she’s worried women might lose interest in trying to follow in Hillary Clinton’s footsteps after watching this miserable election for three more months.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]
As someone who has been watching trends with women in politics for a long time, how did last week make you feel?
Debbie Walsh: We are nonpartisan in the work that we do. That said, watching that moment for me, and I think for my colleagues — I’ve been doing this work for 35 years, the Center has been around for 45 years — it was thrilling to see this moment. I have to say, I had come to think that it might be possible in my lifetime that I might never see a woman actually elected president. We’re not there yet, but we’ve taken a big step last week.
As of Thursday, we’re in a new area for research because there’s never been a woman running in a general election campaign as a major party presidential nominee. With this brand-new thing that’s happening, what are you looking out for?
Walsh: We’re looking at the same sorts of things that we’ve been looking at for women candidates for decades, but now we’re looking at them on a grander stage. We’ll see what kind of progress has really been made. I think it’s fascinating in this particular race because Clinton happens to be running against somebody who has been very polarizing for women as voters.
Donald Trump also happens to be someone who relishes performing masculinity.
Walsh: Yes. When we talk about gender, we’re not just talking about women. We’re talking about men. He uses his gender, right? He uses all the bravado and stereotypes about male leadership. We’ve been talking about how it’s kind of fascinating to watch this race because some of the stereotypes that have been out there about women candidates have all been turned topsy-turvy here.
Back in the ’70s, there was some discussion about whether women could hold leadership positions because once a month they would turn hormonal and they would be dangerous and out of control, and that men were who we needed to have for our elected officials because they would be the steady hand that would steer the ship. What we’re seeing in this race is the opposite. Hillary Clinton is the more steady hand, and the more erratic candidate — in many ways, the candidate who leads with his emotional gut, who can fly off the handle, who can say things without thinking them through — is the male candidate.
It seems that in this election cycle, also for the first time, there’s an acknowledgment that the idea of what we want our president to be is in itself gendered.
Walsh: We do know that when you ask the American public the question, “Would you vote for a qualified woman for president?” ... something like 92 percent [say yes]. We know that there’s some error in that; there are people who know that it’s not right to say that they’re not going to vote for someone because of their gender but believe that [and plan on voting accordingly]. But I still think a pretty large percentage of the American people say that they’re ready to elect a woman president. It’s very hard to ask that question now, because I think it’s almost by default that you’re asking about Hillary Clinton. And you’re right, it is about adjusting your image of who can be a leader.
We have a project here at the Center called Teach a Girl to Lead, which focuses heavily on K through 12 and trying to make women in public leadership visible to girls and boys. It’s to make sure that image — that default image of who can be a public leader — isn’t always the person who looks like their father or grandfather or their uncle, but also someone who looks like their mother. And to make sure that isn’t the exception, but part of the norm. Hopefully we’ll get to that point.
Even if you look at coverage of this election compared to 2008, we’ve come a long way as far as sexism in how things are portrayed, but it’s obviously not perfect. When you’re looking at coverage, what words or descriptors or analyses bug you the most?
Walsh: The one thing that really irritates me is anything that has to do with voice. I think you had a really good example this year. You just take Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. I watched pretty much every single debate. I watched almost every night of primary coverage. The kind of recurring theme around [Clinton] was, “Why is she screaming?” Right? Yet Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump use the same voice. You’d be hard-pressed not to think that they’re screaming at you. But there’s something about women’s voices. When people hear that — and particularly when men hear women’s voices — it’s this kind of reaction. It’s this double standard. And the reality is that they’re speaking in these giant arenas with large crowds screaming, and even though the microphone picks up their speech, you don’t hear all that ambient noise they think they have to speak over in order to be heard. That really bugs me.
It will be interesting to see if Donald Trump comes at Hillary Clinton in the way he came after Carly Fiorina. Remember that line, “Look at that face?!” Or, during the debates, when he said, “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?” Someone went back and did a count of interruptions, and she was by far not the worst offender.
Besides the presidential race, are there any other ways you think 2016 seems encouraging or discouraging for you on the women in politics front?
Walsh: We’ve been watching women running for office for 45 years. And for the last two decades or so, there’s been no growth at the state legislative level. What I’m concerned about is making sure that while we celebrate the enormous, historic significance of the first woman nominee, we don’t forget that at every level of office below that, women make up less than 25 percent of the officeholders. It is tempting, and I think people could easily fall into that trap, to think, Oh, a woman nominee for president! Women have made it! They’re there. We’ve got political parity. But I think it’s important to keep our eye on the full picture, and to know that there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done to make sure women have political parity — in state legislatures across the country, mayors of big cities, governors, and the U.S. House and Senate. We’re still a long way from women being equally represented in these institutions.
Do you think that there hasn’t been as much growth in state legislatures because so many state legislatures don’t pay well?
Walsh: No, because men are there. There’s a whole host of reasons we’ve seen, but a big part of it is that women are more likely than men to need to be recruited to run for office, in part because they don’t see a lot of people who look like them in office. We also know that women with very similar résumés to men are less likely to get asked than men by the political gatekeepers who are doing the bulk of the recruitment. If you need to be recruited, and you’re less likely to get recruited, women are behind the 8 ball.
There’s also the fact that women are far more likely to run for office when they’re older — when their children are older and out of the house — because they’re still the primary caregiver and working full-time jobs. And in many state legislatures, it’s not a full-time job, so it makes it more difficult for women. We do know that when women run, they win at about the same rate that men do. Our challenge hasn’t been getting women elected — it’s been getting more women to step up and run.
I know it’s been true for a while that women wait until their kids are grown to start a political career and wait until they have more experience. But has that gotten any better in recent years?
Walsh: It’s pretty static. Women don’t have what political men have: a wife who takes care of everything at home. It’s the simple things — the day-to-day parts of life that, if you’re an officeholder, you don’t have time for. If you have that support at home, it makes a big difference.
The United States is way behind many other countries when it comes to parity. What are some of the ways that countries that are better at this have figured out?
Walsh: I think we rank 96th or 97th in the world when it comes to parity in national legislatures. One of the real challenges is that we aren’t a parliamentary system. And in many of these parliamentary systems they have gender quotas that require that a party make sure that a certain percentage of their candidates are women. We can’t really have that with how our system is set up now, to say nothing of the fact that if you say quotas in this country, people run screaming. Just look at the battle over affirmative action in education. Having that kind of conversation is a nonstarter.
Colorado is the closest to parity, with women making up 42 percent of its state legislature. Do you know if there is something specific they’ve done that worked?
Walsh: I don’t think it’s the water. Western states have done better in general. Colorado was the first state to officially elect women to its state legislature in the 1800s. Colorado granted women suffrage before national suffrage. There’s been a long history of women’s political participation in the state. If you look at the top 10 states in general, there are a lot of Western states. Some of them are not necessarily progressive states — Arizona is currently in the top 10. But there’s this history that dates back to the settling of the West, where it was kind of a situation where everyone had to participate. Women worked side-by-side with men, and it became part of the culture.
Is there any research that shows what happens when women run for high-profile positions and how it affects how many women run down-ballot?
Walsh: There really hasn’t been particularly good research on that. Globally, we’ve seen it a bit more. … What we may well see, if Hillary Clinton were to get elected, is what she’s hinted at already: That she would appoint more women in her cabinet, and possibly throughout government. I don’t think [it will be] an instantaneous uptick. I worry, frankly, that this race may be so ugly and distasteful that we might turn women off from running, that we might turn off good people in general — women and men.