It’s Time to ‘Vote Her In’ to Executive Political Office

Systemic discrimination knows no bounds when women seek political power—especially when that power resides in an office with unique leadership responsibilities.

[Photo: Barbara Mikulski waves from the podium at the Democratic National Convention]
The author writes that she can still remember advancing Barbara Mikulski’s first congressional campaign 40 years ago. Alex Wong / Getty

The Holy Grail for political women in the United States is election to executive government office. No doubt about it.

The numbers start the story. As I write in October 2018, there are just six women governors (only four of whom are elected, as opposed to appointed). There are only seven women state attorneys general, 11 women secretaries of state, and only eight women chief financial officers in the 50 states. In cities with populations greater than 30,000, barely one-fifth of the mayors are women; in the ten largest U.S. cities, only one has a woman mayor. The numbers aren’t much better on the executive appointments front.

This pitifully small number of women elected to executive office isn’t due to women’s lack of interest in running, nor any lack of commitment by other women to campaign to elect them. It is due to the continuing existence of many of the same barriers that have prevented so many women from running for any office, ever:

  • The power of incumbency means it’s difficult to win as a challenger. And incumbency is still predominantly male.
  • Party nominating systems, and their (mostly male) power brokers, continue to favor male applicants. Men pick each other to make these decisions.
  • Old boys’ political and business networks, for which there are no female equivalents in many communities, typically select their own members for positions that create the leadership platform from which to make a viable run for office.
  • Family and work responsibilities continue to limit women’s time to seek or run for office. Add to this the reality of wage discrimination—meaning women have to work more hours to earn the same amount—which means they have less time than their male peers for civic activities that could advance their political leadership opportunities.
  • Perceived concerns about the ability to request donations to run an effective race continue to discourage women from choosing to run. In fact, women are comparable to men in their ability to ask for money, if not to obtain it.

Such barriers are even higher for women of color, disabled women, and LGBTQ women, since they have to confront other forms of systemic discrimination too.

And when it comes to specific elections, these barriers are most formidable when it comes to women running for executive office. Exhibit number one: Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for the presidency. Two days after Election Day, Jessica Bennett summarized the situation in a New York Times piece: “Girls can be anything. Just not president”. As Bennett wrote,

“She [Secretary Clinton] was representative of those things in a country where the average person finds it easier to pair words like ‘president’ and ‘executive’ with male names and words like ‘assistant’ and ‘aide’ with female names. She represented female power in spite of the reality that a woman’s likability is inverse to her leadership status — that is, we like her less the more she rises — while the opposite is true for men.” (italics mine)

Systemic discrimination knows no bounds when women seek political power—especially when that power resides in an office with unique leadership responsibilities.

Of course, the most important of such offices in U.S. government is the presidency. But there are tens of thousands more such positions in state, regional, and local governments. They include statewide offices, county executives, mayors, township clerks, and school board and parks’ board presidencies. Look around your state and your community. How many women do you see in these jobs? I’m betting not nearly enough, especially when you consider the expertise women have for undertaking these jobs. Women predominate in many communities as single heads of households, or, if not, as primary breadwinners. They know what their communities’ families most need. What a tragedy it is for would-be constituents not to have the benefit of their knowledge and experience.

Hillary Clinton received more votes than Donald Trump, illustrating that, at least sometimes, U.S. voters realize what’s at stake and act commensurately. But, while voters are smart, they too often fall prey to sexism in their electoral decision-making in ways deleterious to their lives. Analysis of 2016 voting patterns reveals deep fissures when it comes to the idea of a woman in executive office. Had women been a greater voting bloc in key states, Clinton would have won the electoral college. Too many white women didn’t vote for Clinton when they—just like women of color—stood to benefit so much more from a Clinton presidency than from a Trump presidency. Too many women discounted or pooh-poohed Trump’s sexism and misogyny, suggesting it was no big deal: “We’re used to that; we shake it off.” As though any woman should have to get used to any misogyny and ever have to shake it off. Too many women said: “I don’t like her,” as though likability were the most important criterion for electing the president of the United States. Others cited Clinton’s campaign mistakes or her (to them) troubled marriage, forgetting, apparently, that plenty of winning male presidential candidates have had odd or cold personalities or troubled marital histories, yet were elected anyway and did a good job for the rest of us.

These are the facts. We elected our first woman POTUS in the popular vote, and then we didn’t in the electoral college.

And then there’s the crux of the issue: Look across the entire spectrum of American institutional life. Look anywhere you choose. The higher up the decision-making ladder you look, wherever you look, the fewer women there are. Uniformly among these institutions—regardless of the political party, race, locale, ethnicity, or age of the men running them—the percentages of women executive decision-makers is modest. Yes, corporate boards are now somewhat increasing their numbers of women members. But they aren’t increasing their CEO ranks similarly.

In the face of this overwhelming evidence of systemic sex discrimination, I postulate that male decision-makers are just fine with women decision-makers if they are in groups of (predominantly) male decision-makers (for instance, in most groups of corporate board members or legislators)−where the male members can maintain decision-making control. But the notion that any woman would have sole decision-making authority: Well, no, that’s just too much. We just can’t possibly have that.

In my newly published book, Vote Her In: Your Guide to Electing Our First Woman President, I present the case and the strategy for changing this reality. I make the case for electing our first Madam POTUS in order to demonstrate the importance of U.S. women attaining every type of executive office, so that our interests and concerns are fairly represented in the institutions that control so much of our lives. To be sure, not every elected woman has stood up for decisions benefiting women as a whole. But I contend that electing Madam POTUS will change everything for everywoman because She is so much more likely than her male opponents to advocate for policies that secure our lives.

I have been a staffer, donor, leader, speaker, writer, and teacher on women and politics since the first modern generation of women ran for office. I can still remember advancing Barbara Mikulski’s first congressional campaign 40 years ago. Today, I continue to work with women candidates. I know hundreds of women who have the ability and the experience to be executive political leaders. Let’s get them elected. Let’s #VoteHerIn. Before it’s too late.