By Elizabeth Field
Although the 2016 election could result in Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton becoming the first female president of the United States, the number of women in elective office in the U.S. is still low, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, a research and advocacy organization.
In 2016, women occupied an average of 23 percent of elected offices in U.S. Congress, statewide electives, and state legislatures. In Kalamazoo, two of the 11 county commissioners are women. This number has the potential to rise this November with six female candidates running in five districts.
“We need more women in office,” said Tracy Hall, WMU graduate and candidate for county commissioner in Kalamazoo’s 3rd District. “Gender does matter, and it matters that we have people who look like us; who understand what we go through, in office.”
Hall remembers in 2012 when Michigan state Reps. Lisa Brown, D-West Bloomfield, and Barb Byrum, D-Onondaga, were barred from speaking on the floor by House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, after saying the words “vagina” and “vasectomy” while speaking against a bill that would place restrictions on abortion. “It really stuck with me how much work we still need for women,” Hall said.
The need for more women in government motivated Hall to run for city commission in 2013 and continues to be her motivation to run for county commission this fall.
“All the candidates get sent a sample ballot to make sure our names are spelled correctly, and to see my name just under Hillary Clinton’s name, I got all sorts of choked up,” Hall said.
WMU student Sophie Driesen said that women should run for elected office, but equal representation in numbers to men isn’t essential. “If they can do it; if they are suitable for the job, but it doesn’t have to be equal,” Driesen said of women candidates.
“I don’t think Hillary is fit at all,” Driesen said.
Another WMU student, Rinicia Clay, said women should have equal representation in government. “Maybe it would be more fair,” Clay said. “If [women] were a majority, what they say would have more acknowledgement.”
The 2012 Men Rule report from the Women and Politics Institute at American University, a private research university, identified factors that affect women’s decision whether or not to run for elective office:
- Women are more likely to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.
- Women are less likely to think they are qualified to run for office.
- Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.
- Women are less likely to receive the suggestion to run for office from anyone.
- Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks.
Kalamazoo City Commissioner Erin Knott is one of two women on the commission. She said she faced gender bias in the political arena firsthand when she ran in 2015.
“At times, there was backlash,” Knott said. “We ran a couple of Facebook ads: a picture of me with some message about the importance of having women on the commission, and there were some men that I don’t know at all, came out and attacked me [on Facebook] for a number of reasons, including being a woman.”
Voters, regardless of gender, are less likely to vote for women candidates that they view as power-seeking, according to a 2010 study from Harvard Kennedy School’s Gender Action Portal. Multiple studies have found that women candidates receive more attention than men regarding their appearance, personality, and family, according to a 2015 article produced by Political Parity, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization.
“Just look at what Hillary has gone through: The dissecting of what she wears, and her hair, and her voice,” Knott said. “I mean, I could go on and on.”