A Woman's Place is in the House: A Comparative Look at Women in Politics in the United States and Canada | Wilson Center

A Woman's Place is in the House: A Comparative Look at Women in Politics in the United States and Canada

Summary of a conference with Sylvia Bashevkin, professor, University of Toronto; Carolyn Bennett, member of Parliament (Canada); Rosemary Brown, former member of Legislative Assembly (British Columbia); Susan J. Carroll, Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University; Marilyn Dankner, National Federation of Republican Women; Elisabeth Gidengil, professor, McGill University; Mervat Hatem, professor, Howard University; Melissa Haussman, professor, Suffolk University; Ellen R. Malcolm, founder, EMILY's List; Eleanor Holmes Norton, congresswoman (District of Columbia); and Karen O'Connor, Women & Politics Institute, American University

Since the United States's so-called Year of the Woman in 1992, when the number of women in the House of Representatives and Senate increased dramatically, there has been an incremental increase in the number of women elected to political office. Similarly, the number of women elected to Canada's House of Commons has increased dramatically over the last twenty years, but the number of women in the House has not increased since women were elected to one-fifth of the seats in 1997. This conference, co-sponsored by the Canada Institute and the Division of United States Studies, was designed to examine the barriers women face in running for elected office at the national, state, and provincial levels in the two countries, in addition to the impact of the elected women and current strategies to increase the number of women in elected politics.

The opening panel examined the particular barriers that women face while running for elected office in both the United States and Canada. Mervat Hatem opened the discussion with some brief comments regarding gender and politics in the Middle East. Elisabeth Gidengil began her remarks with a history of women as politicians, noting in particular the growing refusal of women to serve as "sacrificial lambs," or as female candidates running in districts acknowledged as "not winnable." She attributed the lack of women in elected positions to a problem of supply, stating that there simply are not enough women who want to run for elected office. Gidengil blamed the media for discouraging female participation, citing research that women received less media coverage than men, and that a higher percentage of their coverage portrayed them as overly aggressive and combative. Rosemary Brown supported Gidengil's claims of the media's slanted coverage with personal stories. Her experience as a pioneering black female in the Canadian political arena was greatly shaped by the constraints imposed by her party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), and by the media. In addition, Brown stressed the often-unacknowledged strain inflicted upon family life. Karen O'Connor, who addressed the conference from the American perspective, echoed these sentiments. According to O'Connor, the general negativity associated with politics as a whole, in addition to the current failure to link the positive aspects of policy making with the political arena, has contributed in an overall stagnation of women's activity in elected politics.

The second panel questioned the relevance of the number of women in elected office, and examined strategies to increase the amount of women holding elected positions. Marilyn Dankner spoke briefly about grassroots efforts to assist women running for office. Sylvia Bashevkin then addressed the positive effects of engaging in elected politics. According to Bashevkin, political activity raises issue consciousness, benefits social justice, and is normatively beneficial for those involved. In Canada, however, the primary cleavages dividing region and party have led to a rigid parliamentary system with voting on strict party lines that prevents other influences, such as gender appeals, from actively affecting politics. Susan Carroll applauded the efforts of women's PACs for assisting women at the national level of politics, but cited the lack of efforts at the state level to recruit interested women as being partly responsible for the decreasing numbers of women in politics. Building upon Carroll's remarks, Melissa Haussman attested to the adage: "When women run, they win." In her remarks, Haussman examined the incentives offered by the differing political systems in the United States and Canada, noting a common need for campaign finance reform.

The final panel, which featured two current members of the governments of the United States and Canada, focused upon the actual experiences of elected women. Ellen Malcolm, the founder of EMILY's List, served as the panel's chair while also providing insight into current female candidates in gubernatorial races. Carolyn Bennett stressed the need for reforms in both campaign finance and party structures in order to encourage more female participation in the early stages of elections. Speaking from her personal experience as both a member of Parliament and a family physician, Bennett also spoke of the need to raise awareness among women about ways to become involved in the policy-making process. Eleanor Holmes Norton concluded the conference with remarks about her experiences about being a black female member of Congress. While praising recent successes in "paradigm" issues such as breast cancer, women against violence, and the nursing shortage, Norton called for an increase in cooperation among women across party lines. She spoke of the difficult need to make choices on which issues to support. Norton noted, for example, that while certain issues commonly regarded as "women's issues" might have personal importance, other issues of greater importance to her entire constituent base might take precedence. Looking toward the future, Norton discussed the two prevalent divisive issues, welfare reform and the "gag rule." Using these issues as examples, Norton proceeded to explain how the women's caucus, while comprehensive and powerful, is not entirely sufficient, and thus, that women members of Congress must still maintain their personal stances on issues.