Why Aren’t More Women Elected?

If you believe that our "democratic system" is essentially sound, then you can only blame sexist outcomes on voters themselves.

Hillary Clinton at the European Parliament in 2010. European Parliament

Hillary Clinton’s media surrogates continue to advance the notion that opposition to her candidacy is significantly motivated by popular opposition to the election of a woman. Since sexism remains endemic in the United States, the charge would seem to have a certain plausibility.

Nevertheless, they can’t seem to make this one stick. First we had variations on the unqualified claim that Clinton’s critics are mostly men “attracted to the opportunity to fight against a female president,” but that was easily debunked.

Then we had the admission that this “gendered animus” doesn’t come from “the majority of Hillary Clinton’s critics.” The charge was redirected to “a small group of writers” and their “impassioned followers.” This too has been easily addressed every time the charge gets leveled at anyone specific, which is why the charge itself has taken yet another step back: now it’s half-baked conjecture about a plague of “unconscious sexism” holding Clinton back.

All of this strikes me as a baffling problem for a feminist to have, since it’s exceedingly easy to prove that our elections are afflicted with sexism. The numbers are completely straightforward and uncontroversial: the majority of eligible voters are women (52.1 percent), and even though the majority of actual voters are women (53 percent), women make up less than 20 percent of our legislature. This is an open-and-shut case: clearly something is standing in the way of proportional representation for women.

The difficulty seems to come when you want to insist that this something is significant public opposition. The evidence for that is relatively slim. Gallup reports that about 91 percent percent of Americans would vote for a woman, compared with 91 percent for a Jewish candidate, 60 percent for a Muslim, and 47 percent for a socialist. That first number jumps to 97 percent among Democrats. And while one might speculate that, as with black candidates, there’s a discrepancy among voters between professed and actual support, that case is less compelling for women.

One Harvard study, for example, notes that while there is indeed an 8-point bias against women running for open House seats, there is actually a slight 0.5 percent bias in favor of women compared with male incumbents.

The study goes on to observe that on every criteria ranging from “is a strong leader” to “is qualified,” “women are consistently advantaged by their gender, when being evaluated from the perspective of Democrats and Independents.” It is only “female Republicans [who] will have a more difficult time getting nominated” in the primaries; “Democratic voters have shown a higher propensity to choose a female candidate . . . where a woman has run.”

That last qualifier suggests an alternative explanation for sexism in our elections, though not one that Clinton voters will find particularly convenient. It may turn out that, instead of being a throng of “he-man woman-haters,” Americans are just as amenable to voting for women as much of the rest of the world and simply never get the opportunity.

It’s not that sexism doesn’t exist in our elections. Just the opposite: sexism in American elections is so powerful that Americans rarely even get the chance to support women.

This problem is pretty obvious to anyone who has actually spent any amount of time trying to put more women in office. Most organizations that make this their mission make recruitment and ballot access their central focus, and it has been this way for decades. As Steven Hill notes,

The National Organization for Women (NOW) and other women’s political organizations fought in the 1970s and 80s against the Democrats’ old-boy network for nomination of more women candidates, as well as equal representation in party committees and structures, eventually succeeding in creating more internal female leadership (which can be a steppingstone to public office).

To an extent, these cumulative endeavors have paid off: representation in Congress has increased from thirty-four women (6 percent) before the 1992 election to a total of 102 (19 percent) in the House and Senate today (out of 535 seats).

Hill goes on to add that this approach is not enough, and he’s correct. Though the general public has a limited role in nomination, the actual process of selecting, funding, and endorsing candidates — promoting them from anonymous names on a party ballot to viable contenders — is controlled by tiny groups of party operatives. And lobbying party officials can only ever do so much, which is why one frequent international solution is to actually impose legal gender quotas on nominations. For instance, in Chile, a new electoral law taking effect in 2017 will require parties to

nominate not less than 40 percent and no more than 60 percent of women and men as part of their candidate lists. The reforms will also establish a higher compensatory fee for women candidates for every vote won in elections, designed to help reimburse campaign expenses.

Note how the latter measure aims at another serious barrier to women: access to campaign financing in an economy dominated by men. Any serious attempt to address the representational gender imbalance in the United States would have to consider this economic problem — but since Hillary Clinton is already rich and a competitive fundraiser, this major obstacle to women has been completely off the table.

In fact, since their player is already in the game, Clinton supporters are almost universally ignoring such barriers to candidacy — even though they’re clearly the major obstacles keeping women out of office.

Worse still, Clinton defenders have repeatedly been openly dismissive and contemptuous of critics who are focused on this problem. Rebecca Traister, for example, calls it a “get-out-of-sexism card” and a “dodge” to say that you would vote for a woman who “happens to not be in contention.” The passive phrasing here says everything: Traister is talking about the absence of progressive women to compete with Clinton as a thing that just “happens,” as if by chance.

And that, for the Clinton voter, makes perfect sense. If you believe that our democratic system is essentially sound, then you can only blame sexist outcomes on the voters themselves. And if neither the polls nor political science supports that explanation, you end up having to invent rationalizations, like Sady Doyle’s theory that unconscious sexism is tricking people into thinking Clinton is a literal giant.

It’s only if you’re willing to consider the possibility that sexism is systematic, institutionalized in our electoral system and party rules, and highly concentrated in our ruling class of oligarchs and party kingmakers, that you can begin to understand the actual obstacles to proportional representation. That approach doesn’t generate as many excuses for Clinton’s failings, but it does have the advantage of corresponding with the facts.