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Working for Change

In memoriam: Wilma rule (1925-2004)
Champion of women's representation
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
March 24, 2004

The cause for women's political equality lost one of its strongest voices recently with the passing of Professor Wilma Rule. For decades Professor Rule was a leading writer and researcher whose work resulted in a number of articles and books challenging conventional notions about the reasons for women's lack of political representation in the United States.

Women still hold only 14% of seats in the United States Congress, not much more than after the big gains made in the "Year of the Woman" in 1992. Many advocates for women's representation espouse the view that if more women simply ran for office, or if women candidates had more campaign financing, then far more women would be elected.

But Professor Rule's research of electoral methods and women's representation around the world demonstrates the deficiency of that viewpoint. Her research and that of others showed unequivocally that if you want more women elected to your legislatures, the single most important change is to get rid of our 18th-century winner-take-all electoral system in favor of more modern full representation electoral methods.

This profound insight received too little attention in the United States during Professor Rule's lifetime. And looking at the facts, women's representation has paid the price.

Having only 14% women representatives in the U.S. Congress ranks the United States 57th in the world for percentage of women elected to national legislatures, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Only 24 of 50 states have a female U.S. House member, fewer states than in 1992. The number of women state legislators and women in the House have declined in recent years, and there is little hope of gains in this year's largely non-competitive legislative elections.

Women also fare poorly in executive offices. Only eight women are governors, and nearly all large cities have male mayors. A female presidential candidate has never won even a single convention delegate in a primary or caucus held by one of the major parties.

In contrast, women's representation is far higher in many nations, even those not known for their women's movements. Eighteen nations have double the percentage of women in the U.S. Congress, led by Sweden (45% women representatives), and including such nations as Costa Rica, South Africa, Austria and Germany. Many nations have had women presidents and prime ministers, including Ireland and India.

Given the success of American women in so many areas, why has politics proven such hostile terrain? While discriminatory attitudes certainly play a role, they don't explain why women do so much better in some nations than others. As Professor Rule's lifework demonstrates, the key lies in our continued use of our 18th-century winner-take-all electoral system.

A virtual laboratory is provided by nations that use both our type of winner-take-all system and a "full representation" electoral system. During recent elections in Germany, Italy and New Zealand, women won three times more seats in those chosen by full representation than in those chosen by winner-take-all.

That's because full representation systems use multi-seat districts where political parties (or, in a nonpartisan election, groupings of like-minded voters, i.e. liberals, conservatives, progressives) win seats in proportion to their voting strength at the polls. If a political party wins twenty percent of the popular vote in a ten seat district, its candidates win two of ten seats, instead of none; forty percent wins four seats, and sixty percent wins six seats.

In such a system a political party can earn a fair share of representation with well under 50% of the vote, and parties run teams of candidates that broaden their appeal. Consequently, parties promote more women as candidates, and their candidates work together. If major parties are slow to run more women, women candidates can turn to smaller parties that are more responsive.

Full representation contrasts sharply with our current method of one-on-one, mano a mano, winner-take-all contests that reward aggressive, negative campaigning over teamwork and issues. This method hurts women's representation wherever it is used, both because it doesn't speak to women's strength as coalition-builders and it gives inordinate influence to small groups of swing voters who prefer male leaders.

Electing more women to legislatures is not only a matter of fairness. Practically speaking, the presence of women in legislatures makes a measurable difference in the types of legislation that are proposed and passed into law. Although outnumbered 7-1, women in Congress have been successful in gaining legislation long overlooked by men, including gender equity in the workplace and education, child support legislation, and laws for prevention of violence against women. Yet policy in the United States still lags badly behind most European nations, where many more women sit in legislatures elected by full representation.

Given the unambiguous conclusions of Professor Rule's research, advocates of women's political equality like the National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority, EMILY'S list, and the White House Project would do well to work harder to enact full representation. Most of them have taken the step of supporting it -- NOW even elects its national board using full representation -- but they have yet to take the step of building coalitions for winning full representation with racial minorities, third party advocates and dissatisfied major party supporters.

Women's representation is stuck, and with it the issues women's groups care about. Professor Rule, right up to the end of her nearly 80 years, her abilities but not her enthusiasm or vision hampered by her infirmities, was working on her next book, "Equal Gender Politics: 21st Century," showing us all how much of a barrier winner-take-all poses.

In memory of Wilma Rule, advocates of women's representation should rededicate ourselves to the cause, and reevaluate our advocacy. It is high time to address the most fundamental reason why 52 percent of the population only has 14% of the representation.



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