Thursday, March 31, 2011

Women in Politics, 1984 vs. 2011

Aviva Dove-Viebahn has a column up at TNR today that bizarrely makes the claim that:
Ferraro’s nomination signified hope—a hope that a country mired in institutionalized misogyny could one day see its way to true equality between the sexes. Now, 27 years later, her death compels me to wonder whether we’ve seen much progress.
True equality may not be here yet, but if she's really wondering about progress, she needs to learn a lot more about what the American political system was like in 1984 compared to how it is now.

Why was Gerry Ferraro -- a Member of the House with relatively little experience and what turned out to be real vulnerabilities -- the person Walter Mondale selected to be the first woman on a national ticket? Mainly because there were so few alternatives. In 1984 (all facts from CAWP):

There were two women in the Senate, matching the then all-time high. Both were Republicans. Over the three election cycles leading up to 1984, the Democrats nominated a grand total of four women for the U.S. Senate. Currently, 17 women serve in the Senate (12 Democrats).

Governors? There was one woman out of 50 in 1984, a Democrat who had just taken office that year. In the previous three election cycles, the Democrats had nominated a total of three women for governor (and the GOP hadn't nominated one since 1974). Currently, there are six women servings as governors, down from a high point of nine.

In the House, Ferraro was Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus -- the only woman in a leadership role in either party, and one that Democrats had traditionally held by a woman, at least sometimes, since the 1940s; no woman from either party had ever held any other party leadership position in Congress. Nor were any women chairs of a House committee. Nada. Things, of course, are different now (especially for the Democrats).

In 1984, there had been one female Supreme Court Justice ever; there are three now. There had never been a woman at the top of any of the big four cabinet departments (State, Defense, Justice, Treasury).

I suppose I should also mention that women now serve in senior military posts, too.

Yes, it's true that women who run for office are still attacked in ways that, as Dove-Viebahn says, amount to basically thinly veiled sexist stereotypes. The golden age of perfect equality isn't here...indeed, it's not unreasonable to take a pessimistic view of where we are now, although my tendency is to be more optimistic. But to say that there's no progress, or little progress, or in any way to diminish the differences between 1984 and 2011 is to really miss a major, significant shift. Back then, Ferraro was one of at best a half-dozen of even somewhat plausible candidates for VP, and all of them were going to raise legitimate (not, that is, gender-related) questions about their qualifications. That's never going to be the case again.


  1. Not to mention that changes like this take time, and the world doesn't change overnight. Ferraro grew up and built a successful career during a more sexist time. Everyone who is a state-wide or federal elected official right now grew up before there was a female on a major party's Presidential ticket. Even Aaron Schock, the youngest member of Congress, was born before Ferraro was a candidate for VP.

    When women born in 1984 are 49 years old themselves, the same age Ferraro was in 84, they will have grown up in a much different world.

  2. Unfinished sentence in the middle of the post:
    "There had never been a woman at the top of any of the big four cabinet departments (State, Defense, Justice, Treasury);"

  3. Anon,

    Thanks, fixed. Let's see: beginning in 1993, one at Justice, three at State, right? As with everything else, huge difference from 1984, nowhere close to 50/50.


    Yes, but. The record on this by the political system in the 1970s-1980s was awful, I'd say. Since ~1990, a lot of the story is just generational change taking a long time, with a major substory being the GOP falling behind.

  4. I wonder whether she's really talking about the decreasing visibility of progress on female representation in the last twenty years, not thirty? (Since the Congressional "Year of the Woman," say.) She says that she was born in 1983 -- I was, too -- and people our age definitely don't understand viscerally how bad it used to be, but we also don't have the sense my mother's generation had that things were on the upswing and would keep improving.

    That said, in the last couple of years I have in fact felt that things were improving -- as women who are now around 40, who grew up with the fight already in progress (Kirsten Gillibrand, Gabby Giffords, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Stephanie Herseth Sandlin -- and Kirsti Noem, etc.), have started to become visible. Well, visible to political junkies, anyway.

    Worth noting as well that a lot of the progress you note has been in appointed rather than elected positions.

  5. the classicist makes a good point about the generations -- that what we've come "down" from is not an objectively better situation, but a time when hopes for rapid improvement were higher. That said, it's also just a reflex on the left to complain that things are never any better, or even that they're always getting worse. This combines with an unwillingness to acknowledge progress because, apparently, the word "progress" is thought to mean the whole Whig Interpretation of History, some notion that things get better inevitably and unstoppably. Which they don't, but they do clearly get better, in a sort of three-steps-forward-two-steps-back kind of way.


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