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Editorial: More women in politics needed

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 17, 2014 5:00 AM

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America’s representational democracy has long been subject to the questions that naturally follow: Just how representative are we? Should the inner chambers of Congress reflect the demographics of who votes?

Though the second question is no settled matter, those in Iowa needn’t look further than their own state to answer the first: Iowa has never sent a woman to Washington. In federal elections, men dominate the field in other states as well. Congress only has 98 female members of the 535 total. On the state level, just 24.1 percent of legislators are women.

But it’s not as if women are less interested in politics. In the 2008 election, 65.7 percent of voting-age women went to the ballot box, compared with 61.5 percent of men. There’s also no evidence that voters particularly prefer male candidates. According to some political strategists, voters even see women as more trustworthy and less prone to corruption.

So what are the reasons behind this representational discrepancy? One of the simplest explanations is that women just don’t try to run for office as often as men. According to politicalparity.org, only 26 percent of female candidates for office were “self-starters,” while 53 percent were recruited by a party.

That’s a trend the Iowa Women’s Foundation aims to turn around with its 50-50 in 2020 Program. Marking the 100th year since women gained suffrage (August 1920), 50-50 in 2020’s mission is to achieve political gender equity in the Iowa Legislature and with the state’s congressional representatives by that centennial anniversary. The bipartisan organization will not endorse candidates but will use its resources to recruit, train, and mentor Iowa women in preparation to run for office.

Getting women to make up 50 percent of the state’s representatives in fewer than six years is an ambitious goal and perhaps a bit unrealistic. But the underlying message of 50-50 in 2020 has reverberated in Iowa.

On Friday, a symposium dedicated to the issue of women in politics will be held in the Old Capitol. And a record six women are running for Congress in Iowa, including Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Red Oak; Marianette Miller-Meeks, former director of the state Department of Public Health; and former state Sen. Staci Appel.

We believe that in order for a legislature to accurately represent the will of the people, its members must be symbolically representative as well. On issues such as abortion, access to contraceptives, and health care, which are often gender divided in public opinion, it is important to include all the significant stakeholders in legislative debate. Deliberation on every issue benefits from a more representative set of participants. As it stands, when only 18.3 percent of Congress members are women, their voices simply aren’t heard as much.

Political scientists and pundits have regularly bemoaned the gender gap in legislatures without much getting done about it, and equity in politics is still a long ways away. We won’t see gender equity after the next election, and we may not have it even 100 years after women gained the right to vote. However, these efforts by Iowa women’s advocates are all positive indicators that the tide is shifting. Eventually, we can start putting the “representational” back into America’s democracy.


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