Wisconsin women a small percentage in politics


Gwen Moore, Democratic Congresswoman for Wisconsin, at Labor Fest 2010. Photo by Brittany McGrail / Brittany.McGrail@Marquette.edu
Gwen Moore, Democratic Congresswoman for Wisconsin, at Labor Fest 2010. Photo by Brittany McGrail / Brittany.McGrail@Marquette.edu

Drastic changes in government and a politically coined “Year of Women” have increased the debate on whether women are becoming more prominent in U.S. government.

Although this “Year of Women” spurred from notable female candidates such as Christine O’Donnell (R-Del.) and Sharron Angle (R-Nev.) and their opinionated activism, the recent midterm elections actually marked the first time in 30 years that the percentage of women in Congress did not increase. In fact, it slightly decreased.

Karen Hoffman, visiting assistant professor of political science, said she attributes the decline to both male and female incumbent Democrats losing races to Republican candidates in their takeover of the House. However, she also noted that high profile Republican women such as O’Donnell didn’t win either.

“Since some of the heavily media-covered races featured women, it gave the impression that they were broadly represented,” Hoffman said.

Broad female political representation has not been common in U.S. history. According to the National Women’s Political Caucus, a grassroots organization dedicated to women’s political participation, only about 17 percent of current Congress members are women. Women currently occupy 17 U.S. Senate seats and 74 positions in the House of Representatives.

Historically, only 215 of 11,699 Congress members have been women, according to NWPC. This is less than 2 percent.

Local and state levels follow the same pattern, with 27 states never having had a female governor. Delaware, Iowa, Mississippi and Vermont have never voted a woman into Congress at all.

Although Wisconsin has voted females into office, it is not a state known for its number of female politicians.

Wisconsin currently has no female senators. Two of eight representatives of the house and seven of 33 state senators are women.

These numbers rank Wisconsin 32nd among state legislatures regarding proportions of women in office, according to the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

Congresswoman Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) said Congress still has a long way to go before women fully achieve equality. She also said it is important to increase female numbers in every field of work, not just politics.

“We need more women in government, in medicine, and in law,” she said in an e-mail. “We need women in those fields because we’ve seen what happens when they aren’t there.”

Hoffman touched on the issue as well, and said it is important to increase the number of women at local and state levels, so they can filter upward to the national level.

She added that the current problem regarding women in politics is not performance in office, but simply getting voted there.

“There are constraints that have to do with society’s understanding of gender, but those are harder to solve with any particular policy,” Hoffman said. “It is important to note that women who have achieved office are viewed positively for the most part.”

A July CNN/Opinion Research Poll showed that Americans are overall optimistic about a woman president in the next 20 years. In the poll, 81 percent believed the chances were “excellent.”

Women might have strong desires of increasing numbers of female politicians, but males are not opposed to the idea either.

John Heflin, junior in the College of Arts & Sciences, said the support for and coverage of female politicians in the midterm elections foreshadows a growing emphasis on women’s political future.

“Some of the female coverage, such as with Meg Whitman and Christine O’Donnell, was less than flattering even if you disagree with their ideological views,” Heflin said. “Outside of the candidates, women make up majority of voters in most national elections, yet Congress does not reflect that.”