Thoughts (from Women) on Women in Politics

In convening an informal focus group, I tried to go beyond my bubble

A few months ago, I reached out to about two dozen women, most of them close friends, family, and co-workers whose judgment and opinions I value and trust, to hear their views on the state of women in politics.

Despite Hillary Clinton's near-miss in 2016, despite the significant uptick in female congressional candidates (and winners) in 2018, and despite the presence of several major women candidates in the 2020 Democratic field, there remains an entrenched bias against women in politics.

I had long wanted to write something on the subject but didn't know where to start. Or perhaps I felt I wasn't in a position to do so with any real authority. Part of the issue was that male authors and pundits dominated much of my diet of political news and commentary.

In writing to my informal focus group, I tried to go beyond my bubble. Of course, the burden isn't on women to solve the problem of too few women in politics. I was simply looking for how the group's opinions might differ from those I typically hear from men.

Instead of summarizing the responses I received and adding my own color, I'm going to share direct quotes in full and let the women speak for themselves. The passages below have not been altered.

What is one action, idea, or thing that can be done to topple the gender barrier in politics?

"Create organizations that encourage women to run for office. We need more women candidates and more woman officeholders, in order to give Americans as much evidence as possible that women absolutely can win elections and govern people. It helped that Shirley Chisholm and Hillary Clinton ran; it helps that there are so many women running for president today. We need to keep expanding our minds about what candidates are 'supposed' to look like and sound like."

"Foster more diverse newsrooms, particularly in politics beats and particularly in leadership roles. We would probably get fewer horse race stories focused on gendered 'electability' metrics—tone of voice, appearance, 'shrillness,' etc.—if there were more women on staff who were empowered to interrogate these narratives. We've come a long way from the horrendously sexist coverage of Clinton and Palin, but we still have such a long way to go in this area. Media shapes culture."

"Interrogate the narrative. Everyone should do this, not just the journalists crafting the storylines. Do you have friends who are big Sanders supporters who are reluctant to support Warren? Press them on why. If their reasoning seems a bit sexist, tell them so. Did you just read an article that put forth a bullshit argument about Kamala Harris that seems like a double standard to you? Think about how that double standard was constructed; tell someone you know that this bothered you to read. Spark a conversation with people in your life who may not otherwise discuss gender and power. Patriarchal structures are deeply rooted and, in some cases, practically invisible. Cultural shifts require us all to participate in the act of paying attention, identifying the double standards, and calling them out."

"I think a sizable portion of the gender barrier can be attributed to the fact that females internalize so much of what is said to—and about—them from the moment they're born. How we talk to and about girls and women is a fundamental part of changing the way we operate as a society, including the willingness of females to speak up and engage as much and as confidently as boys and men do from a very early age. The language we use, such as referring to girls as beautiful or cute (in comparison to how we talk about boys), entangles their sense of self-worth with their physical appearance, setting them up for a whole host of issues, not the least of which being the implied need to devote lots of attention to their physical attributes in lieu of other things like character development, personal/professional goals, interests, etc."

"My ultimate suggestion applies to the realm of elementary school education. At Bryn Mawr, I found it invaluable to have, for the first time in my life, primarily female classmates. In a supportive environment where I felt comfortable and was actively encouraged to participate, I started speaking during class much more than I ever had before. A lot of that I attribute to being a largely female-populated space, which focused on empowerment for women above all else. Now, I'm not suggesting that we should segregate all classes or schools by gender, but I think it could be beneficial to give girls in elementary school a chance each day to spend time in a female-only classroom setting. Perhaps one or two classes could be gender-specific, giving girls (and their teachers) the chance to see first-hand how they behave differently (and likely participate more) when surrounded by their own gender."

"Our dominant gender discourse prizes female passivity and agreeableness over assertiveness and confidence, the very attributes you'd need in order to succeed in any political endeavor."

"The very concept of charisma is tied to masculine characteristics, and in turn, I think many attach the characteristics of successful candidates to men because it’s what we’re accustomed to. It’s really hard to break through those assumptions."

Who is one female author, advocate, journalist, or commentator you'd recommend I follow and read?

People | Jennifer Bendery (Reporting); Rebecca Traister (Books - Column); Jessica Valenti (Books - Columns); Ijeoma Oluo (Book - Twitter); Lauren Duca (Book - Twitter)

Organizations | She Should Run; Supermajority

Content | Betches' "The Sup" newsletter; Fortune's "Broadsheet" newsletter; Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne; Harvard Business Review's Women at Work podcast

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What Caught My Eye

+ Andrew Yang won't be the next president, but what he has to say is worth your time.

+ This is who Trump is, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

+ The legacy of Mitch McConnell will haunt the left for decades to come.

+ More than 40 percent of 25-year-old American men were living with their parents in 2017.

+ "No belief in American history has been more threatening to democracy, or consumed more American lives, than the certainty that only white people are fit for self-government, and the corresponding determination to exclude other citizens from the polity."

+ "Conduction," a short story by Ta-Nehisi Coates