By Isaac Mayer
In the wake of the recent national election, many new candidates are on their way to the Capitol. But one thing has barely changed at all, and that’s the percentage of women in Congress.
The 114th House of Representatives will have 83 out of 435 seats filled by women, a mere 19 percent. The Senate is barely better, with 20 out of 100, or 20 percent. These percentages are essentially unchanged since 2004, at the height of the Bush presidency, and are at about the highest they’ve ever been.
Of course, it is no big news that Congress is an old boy’s club, or that women are underrepresented in government — although really, it should be. But considering the rapidly increasing turnout by women at the polls, and the fact that the majority of Americans of voting age are female, it seems odd that this disparity would be so pervasive or so long-lasting.
The biggest surprise of the last elections is how the Republicans won big. They did it primarily by appealing to their base of white males. Slate recently published a report that 64 percent of white men voted Republican in 2014. Republicans knew that the white male demographic would give them the easiest shot at victory, so they didn’t really bother to produce respectful ads targeting women.
In one of the rare ads they created that targeted women, a spot from the College Republicans’ National Committee, the women in the ad seem just to be filling boxes on the sexist stereotype checklist: the shrill, nagging harpy, and the vapid, reality-TV-obsessed bride-to-be. The caricatures were so sexist you barely even notice how sexist the entire concept for the ad is — implicitly implying that women chose male candidates based on how they appear, not on their actual values or voting record.
Of the 83 women in the House, 64 of them, or 77 percent, are Democrats. And of the 20 women in the Senate, 16 of them, or 80 percent, are Democrats. But this problem is not only a Republican problem. Even with such high percentages of female Democrats out of female candidates, the majority of Democrats in both the House and the Senate are male.
So what gives? Why hasn’t the rapidly increasing female voter population resulted in more female candidates being elected? Perhaps the blame can be laid on the naturally backward-facing nature of campaigning. People run based on what worked in the past, so people assume that women — who haven’t won many seats in the past — won’t win again. So they don’t get the funding they need in today’s post-Citizens United world for their campaigns, and they lose to more apparently electable men in the primaries. Perhaps younger women, noticing that so few women have succeeded in government, feel they don’t have a chance either, and withdraw from politics.
This is a self-fulfilling cycle that needs to be broken. And the only way to do it is to get more women to vote, more women to run for office, and more women to stand up for where they want our country to go. Only then will we be able to address the government’s gender gap.
Isaac Mayer is a first-year college student at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s List College in its joint program with Columbia University in New York. He is a San Diego native who lives in Tierrasanta.