Melissa Harris Perry
updated 6/8/2013 3:47:24 PM ET 2013-06-08T19:47:24

Recent crises such as the conservative attack on reproductive rights and the uptick in military sexual assault cases have proven how valuable women are to the political dialogue. Will more consider running for office?

Female politicians have been making headlines all over town, from Michele Bachmann announcing her retirement from Congress, to Alison Lundgren Grimes debating throwing her hat in the Kentucky Senate race to female lawmakers leading the discussions on gun control measures, immigration, and sexual assault in the military. Last Saturday on Melissa Harris-Perry, the panel discussed the importance of having women in elected office, and how more can be urged to run in the upcoming elections.

Women in government seem to come to the job with an agenda of productivity: their goals are not to quibble over ideological differences but to talk, listen and compromise in order to pass comprehensive legislation to protect women against violence and to promote women’s health, among many other issues. “That’s why we need more women in elected office because they are going to push these issues forward and raise the questions that quite frankly men have no raised,” said panelist Reshma Saujani, a Democratic candidate for New York City public advocate.

In a recent Vogue interview by Amanda Foreman, Nancy Pelosi stated, “women are very operational: They get the job done. They are consensus builders, too. They listen; they are editors; they weed out what isn’t necessary to get an impact.” As theGrio managing editor Joy Reid pointed out, when Pelosi was Speaker of the House more legislation was passed than the House that passed Medicare.

On the Senate side, Foreman quotes Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota: “Women have proven to be problem solvers who work across the aisle to get things done.” If there is anything our Congress needs now, it is members who will reach across that line, not at the expense of their principles, but to compromise in order to yield results. “We need all sorts of women because we are a full spectrum and so I don’t want to just see raging feminists [in Congress] I want to see women there who side with policies that I may not like because they are the voice of other female Americans,” noted Carmen Wong Ulrich, industry professor of finance at NYU PolyTech.

Currently, though it is a historic number, only 98 out of the 535 members of Congress are female; five committee chairs in the Senate are women and five of the 15 elected leadership positions in the House belong to women. Only five out of 50 governorships belong to woman. If women are so successful when they are in office, why aren’t more in office? The answer is the campaign.

Many women find it overwhelming to run, they have a family to balance, face the daunting task of raising funds, and then have to go through the exhausting process of having their every move interpreted as too nice and therefore weak, or too pushy and therefore cold, polarizing, or mean. While men do face campaign struggles, they experience only a fraction of the public scrutiny that awaits female politicians.

If we are to see an influx of women in government, we need to see an influx in women running for office. Next year, in addition to the congressional elections, there will be 36 gubernatorial races. We need to encourage women to run by making running for and holding office a realistic accomplishment. In an interview with Politico, Gov. Maggie Hassan said, “…we all need to keep…reaching out to other women and let them understand that running for office can fit into their lives and that they can be good at it.” Most recently we have seen the effect of this encouragement with EMILY’s List’s endorsement of Allyson Schwartz in Pennsylvania’s race to unseat governor Tom Corbett.

Empowering women to run is the first step, but there are still institutional practices that need to be addressed. Pelosi notes in Foreman’s article the fiscal constraints women face and rules that do not let them use their income to allow children to travel with them. With a fixed income there is also little flexibility for a member of Congress to maintain a DC residence and a family residence, unless they have funds elsewhere. And while it may seem like a small issue, even the practice of holding votes late in the evening could be reformed to allow mothers to get home and not have to rush back to the office. Admittedly, these changes make it seem like women in government should also be relegated to the stereotypical June Cleaver role, but the fact remains that most women are tasked with taking care of their families while men are free to stay late in the office and away from home.

Although the obstacles that women face seem overwhelming, they are also unifying. Women in government use their shared struggles to relate to one another and build bipartisan relationships. When interviewed by Foreman, Sen. Gillibrand said, “[o]ur presence and perspectives do a great benefit to the common good because they broaden the outlook on what the solutions are to the issues.” These women find ways to bond over their similarities in order to overcome their differences. “When it comes down to brass tacks, women are women and they’re going to defend themselves, defend their own honor,” said Reid.

We can change the collective apprehension of women holding higher office only by increasing the visibility of female politicians, and it all starts with the campaign.  As we gear up for the 2014 election season, political consultants will be looking for people to run, and they will most certainly be looking for women. As Molly Ball writes in The Atlantic, “all else being equal, women make more desirable candidates.” All we need to do now is show them they can do it.

In an NBC Nightly News interview on May 22, special correspondent Maria Shriver sat down with Sen. Gillibrand, Sen. Collins and Rep. Speier to talk about their proposed legislation to take the prosecution of sexual assault in the military, out of the chain of command. See that interview below.

Video: Women make up only 1/5 of Senate, less than 1/5 of House

  1. Closed captioning of: Women make up only 1/5 of Senate, less than 1/5 of House

    >>> we've been talking about the pew research center survey showing that women are increasingly the bread winners of u.s. households, but women in the u.s. house , as in congress, now that's a different story. women still make up only one-fifth of the senate and less than a fifth of the house and the 113th congress is in fact the record-breaking congress for women . one of the things i think that's been most interesting for me, rushma, is watching how the women of the 113th have in fact taken up issues that impact men and women , but particularly the sexual assault in the military. elizabeth warren and other women who have been right out there in front, barbara boxer and others saying we have to address this now. there are many men who have also been victimized by sexual assault , but it took women sitting there to get this finally moving forward.

    >> i think it goes back to what i'm saying. i think that many women who are in elected office see it as their responsibility to bring these issues forward. and it comes from a place i think of passion and interest. senator gillibrand has been out there on this issue as well. you're seeing with several others very vocal on immigration, how it affects undocumented women . that's why we need more women in elected office because they will push these issues forward and raise these questions that quite frankly men haven't raised.

    >> i'm willing to make a claim for women in elected office even if they didn't. that there is a demographic value in a democracy to saying that the body into which you are born is not in and of itself a disqualification for office. so even if i disagreed with all of the women who were running or if they didn't bring up specific questions, that it still wouldn't matter. are we wanting feminists in office or does having all women , including the michele bachmann 's of the world matter?

    >> we need all sorts of women because we are a full spectrum. so i don't want to just see ram raging feminists. i want women who are the voice of other female americans. it's way too easy to take down both extremes. we need a little bit more in the middle.

    >> and you've seen that there are fwhen power on the right too. you think about governor nikki ha hailey, the way they tried to stop her from being elected was through a sex scandal . was she a proper republican conservative woman. i do think it's important to have women on both sides of the aisle. as we saw with megan kelly, when it comes down to brass tax, women are women and they're going to defend their own honor. but it's also important where the women are.

    >> at least working women because i'm thinking sure i always buy that. but i do buy probably megan kelly in part was -- i take personally -- you know, wee all mothers who work. the idea that we are harming our children by working, like that goes to the gut of who we are.

    >> a happy mama is a good mama and i will not be happy if i'm sitting at homemaking sandwich. i would not be happy that's part of it.

    >> and it's okay if some women are.

    >> the full spectrum of what a woman is. i just want the opportunity to do what makes me happy and that makes me a better parent to my child.

    >> you also have to have women in a position to make a difference. if you look at the house and the senate, the women in the house are there, but the women in the senate have power because you have more women who the democrats decided to put in leadership and you have women like dianne feinstein who's been very forth right on issues like guns and national security . you have kirsten gillibrand who led this fight about sexual assault in the military. these women are on prominent committees and are very important. if you look on the house side, the most powerful woman in the house is nancy pelosi , who is the minority leader, who john boehner can't pass lentgislation without her. when she was speaker of the house , there was more legislation passed since its congress that passed medicare.

    >> there's also the point that if we look, for example, at our supreme court . that doesn't require voters to get on board. we've only had four women on the court in all of american history and three of them are sitting on the court right now. when we look at cabinet level positions, only 45 ever in american history , 45 women ever in cabinet level positions. that doesn't require voters getting on board, that requires the men who are currently in leadership getting on board to put women there.

    >> and then even in countries where you have women as prime ministers often or other chief executives, they still end up filling their cabinets with men. margaret thatcher i believe had only one female cabinet minister in the first cabinet she put together.

    >> she was reagan.

    >> and also 1979 . but i think the low representation of women in congress is a symptom of a broader problem of unrepresented unrepresentedativness of congress. it's important to have a diversity of experience so people can relate. there's also a problem that the economy is much better in washington, d.c. , than it is in the country as a whole so people get cloistered in this d.c. centric view. the economy looks quite good for people in d.c. , especially for affluent people in d.c. one thing we need to bring that diversity of experience is women in positions of power. but there are other measures that are harder to find on a demographic table that are ways to which --

    >> can i add to that? i think it's important to note one-third of women who run say someone discouraged them from running. there used to be a time i think with female voters, well, i'm not going to vote for the women . you should vote for the women and i think that's changing. my donor base, my volunteer base, we will be led to victory because women voted for us.

    >> speaking of all the data, data show that when women are running in open seat races, they have just as much likelihood of winning as men, so the problem of not being able to win, it started out with all men and so the men are the incumbent so it's harder to win those seats. thank you for joining us both josh and rushma, carmen and joy are staying around because up next, we are going in. medical orgasms, little sex pills, and what the hysteria is all about. send the kids out of the room for this one because we are talking lady loving


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