How Can We Get More Women Elected?
by Cynthia Terrell
Good morning! Itís nice to be here at such a remarkable
I believe itís essential that we must run effectively as women
candidates. Though many voters have historically been reluctant to
support women and other nontraditional candidates the tide is
changing. Some polls indicate that voters actually trust women to be
more honest and hard-working -- a trend which women candidates must
Let me give you an example. I worked Iowa on a campaign for the
Equal Rights Amendment during the much-touted "year of the woman" --
if you remember that was back in 1992 -- where a strong woman state
senator named Jean Lloyd Jones was running for the U.S. Senate. At
that time, there were only two women in the Senate, so being a woman
was a real plus. The problem was with her yard signs, bumper
stickers and other publicity. They simply said.... "Lloyd Jones".
The casual voter may not even have known she was a woman! She did
not win that race.
I spent the years between college graduation and having my first
child working on political campaigns. I worked on races for the
presidency, senate, house, governor, legislatures and that hard
fought race for a state ERA in Iowa.
During these years I saw first-hand the obstacles women and other
non traditional candidates face in getting elected to public
To illustrate my point Iíll use myself as an example.
I always planned to run for office, in fact when asked in my
interviews for college acceptance what I wanted to do with my life I
responded without hesitation "run for president". I certainly
believed at that point that with my middle class background and
well-healed diplomas in my pocket the path to elected office would
But I havenít run for elected office and here is why:
- I spent my
professional career, as so many women do, helping other people
learn to be good candidates and win campaigns. But that didnít
necessarily translate into having the political viability
needed for being nominated by a party to run for office. Those
who are nominated have usually been brought up in the system
and are willing to serve it faithfully. I was not particularly
interested in that system.
- As we all know
running for political office takes a lot of money. More money
than most single, young women have access to.
running for office within the confines of the current
winner-take-all system with its incredibly high reelection
rate means very limited choices and very negative campaigns.
Running in this context is about entering a FIGHT not a RACE,
and I, like a number of women I know, donít want to stoop that
- And of course
there are the family and lifestyle questions. Campaigns are
notoriously grueling, often ugly and very time consuming. Many
women who like me are the primary care-givers -- either for
their children or their parents -- canít or wonít make the
sacrifice it would take to run for office.
- Men simply
donít face that kind of choice as often, if at all. While
things are changing, men still have more freedom to pursue
their dreams than we do as women.
Finally, the thing that keeps me, and I presume all those other
qualified women from running for office, is that the rules of the
political game are unfair and outdated. Think about it, they
were established over two hundred years ago and itís time they
changed. The laws governing our elections have changed little since
slavery was a given and the vote for women was not. Single-member
geographic representation made sense when voters on the eastern
shore of Maryland, for example, shared like-minded concerns and
interests. But times are different. Voters in the carefully shaped
congressional districts are enormously diverse. It seems ridiculous
to think that we still elect one person and charge them with
representing 600,000 individuals of different classes, races,
genders, professions and political affiliations. The single member
district psychology provides few choices and discourages the
participation of nontraditional candidates.
We all are familiar with the statistics on how low the U.S. ranks
in the representation of women compared to Sweden, Germany, Norway,
Scotland, Finland, Denmark, South Africa, Mexico... and the list
just goes on and on. And of course women donít fair much better in
the legislative bodies of our states, towns and cities.
Have you ever wondered why the United States lists 43rd in a
world-wide ranking of women elected to higher office? Well, I
There are probably a number of factors but a huge factor,
arguably the most important, is that those other countries (like
nearly every country in the world -- particularly the new
democracies) have proportional voting systems.
These PR systems come in many forms but they are based on the
principle that groups of like minded voters can win seats in
proportion to their share of the vote. When a womanís party formed
and ran candidates in Iceland a few years ago, it won its fair share
of seats right from the start. But here, a womanís party like the
21st century party - one that many feminists wanted to form a decade
ago -- faces near-insurmountable obstacles to any success until we
A good case study for comparison are those countries which have a
mixed system in which half of the legislative body is elected from
single-winner district seats -- like our congressional seats and
state legislatures -- while the other half or part is elected from
parties which list their candidates (often alternating by gender)
before-hand and can win seats with as little as 5% of the vote.
Parties win seats in proportion to their share of the
Not surprisingly, women comprise a much greater percentage of the
party list seats than the single-member district seats. It is also
the case that womenís parties are viable and thriving in a number of
European democracies and their influence on the more traditional
parties is significant. Even in countries without distinct womenís
parties, women as voters have more power because the parties cannot
take any votes for granted if they are to retain their seats.
As long as we have a system that gives 100% of the representation
to candidates who win only 51% of the vote I donít believe there
will be real gender equity in our legislative bodies. Proportional
systems allow voters greater meaningful choices and politicians
greater ability to enact meaningful legislation.
Thanks to the example of the many, many nations which have
proportional systems we have some obvious answers to that often
asked question -- "how can we get more women elected?"
I should add that there is a growing movement for proportional
systems in this country. Delores Huerta and Ellie Smeal joined many
others in being founding members of the Center for Voting and
Democracy -- which has a booth here, at Exhibit 330, and is working
to break down the barriers in our political system and provide more
nontraditional candidates with an opportunity to run and win in a
kinder, gentler and fairer political