Post Written by Ophelia Overton
Picture a young girl, about 10 or 11 years old. She’s lying on the living room floor watching television. She sees a commercial for Hillary Clinton running for president and thinks, ‘That could be me,’ but does she realize the barriers standing between her and the presidency, let alone between her and the polling booth?
In 2016, when breaking through the glass ceiling seems closer than ever, women are forced to jump over a number of hurdles before they can even think about stepping foot in the political process. From social to structural barriers, it’s important to understand the political climate women face in 2016.
Women face immense social barriers to exercising their agency in the political sphere. From deeply entrenched sexism, to outright laughter at women with political aspirations, contemporary culture is not conducive to women participating in the political process. Although laws forbidding women from voting or running for office are long gone, the social stigma remains. Women who are interested in politics are often categorized as loud-mouthed feminists or overly ambitious. If women are able to circumvent the social taboo, they must face various structural barriers to their participation.
The recent Arizona primary reignited the debate over voter suppression after too few booths were available for voting, causing voters to wait in line for hours. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is nothing new.
The various ways voter suppression manifests itself is well-documented in American politics and has made it increasingly harder to register to vote, cast a ballot or have votes counted. Other forms of systemic barriers such as closing down voter registration drives, shortening the period for early voting, or prohibiting voting on certain days are curtailing the rights of hundreds of thousands of American citizens. The structural barriers for women are more pronounced.
In the case of the Arizona primary, long lines forced some voters to wait five or more hours to cast their ballot. Women are typically the primary caretakers of their children, so waiting in long lines with children waiting at home is just not an option.
Of all these injustices, the tightening of voter ID laws has posed unique challenges for women. Women often change their name when they marry, so it’s not uncommon for their last name not to match their registration or ID and thus women are disenfranchised from the political process. The situation becomes even more dire for women of color.
Should a woman be able to jump these hurdles and try to join the process as a politician, another series of obstacles stand in her way.
It’s not news that United States politics is still very much a boy’s club. In 2015, of all the 535 seats in the US Congress, only 104 are held by women yet in the last four presidential elections a higher proportion of women voted. That is not to say that women should only vote for women, but there seems to be a disconnect between the voices participating and the reality of who is representing these women.
When a woman does make it into office, things don’t get any easier. Women are not taken as seriously and are often judged on superficial things such as their appearance as opposed to policy positions. According to the 2014 report , “Shifting Gears: How Women Navigate the Road to Higher Office,” an elected official study participant noted that she can’t “just run around in blue jeans,” even when she’s not at work because she feared that it would undermine her professional credibility.
The examination doesn’t end there. That same report also notes the qualifications of female candidates are questioned more and their family life is put under more scrutiny (particularly how they balance having children with running for office or why they don’t have children). Female candidates also feel more pressure to conform to social norms to be accepted than their male counterparts.
In other words, once women do attain status in the political field, systemic barriers look for reasons to keep women out instead of searching for ways to get them involved.
What We Can Do
As grim as these prospects are, it’s not all bad. There IS hope. In 2016, we are closer than ever to having the first female president and women of color have gained a voice in Congress. If you’d like to learn more about what it takes to get women involved in the political process, click here or here.
Cover Photo Credit: Suffragettes, New York Times 1921