There are five female governors in the United States of America. Five. Henry the VIII was married to more women than are currently serving as their state’s chief executive.
Despite a record number of women serving in this year’s Congress, the number of women governors actually declined in 2013. From 2003 to 2009, there were eight female governors, the most ever to serve at one time. However, since then, the number has slid downward leading some to wonder why there are so few. Considering that governorships are often the springboard to the White House, this is troubling for those wanting to see a female president in his or her lifetime.
In terms of female leadership, the Hill is currently the bright spot with women making up 18% of Congress, an all-time high. 20 years ago, women made up 10% of Congress. That’s roughly an 8% increase in female membership over the last two decades. Still, if this same growth rate continues, it will be 80 years before we see gender balance in Congress. And with current trends, even longer before we see it in governorships. This is unacceptable.
To be clear, this isn’t just about the numbers. It’s more than that. Public policy is largely crafted based on the personal experiences of the decision-makers, and when the composition of decision-makers varies so greatly from those they govern, it’s easy to be out of touch. It helps explain why equal pay legislation, which impacts 54% of the voting electorate, has seen the same amount of action in Congress this year as a bill to make it easier for Cubans to play baseball in the U.S. A bill to help prevent discrimination against American workers should not be on the back burner. And to think, we could be decades away from the kind of gender balance in our leadership that would help bring this and other issues impacting women to forefront is incredibly frustrating. We need more women elected now.
How do we do this? First, it’s important to understand what we’re up against. A 2010 study by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation on women’s campaigns for governor found that women candidates had to be both likable and qualified. However, voters were willing to support a male candidate whom they didn’t necessarily like if they felt he was qualified.
The Foundation also notes,“Voters have a hard time picturing a female governor. At this writing, only two CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies are women. Few role models mean low expectations – it’s the there aren’t any so there won’t be any syndrome.”
And as Andrienne Kimmell, who heads the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, told ChicagoMag.com, “Voters look differently at the office of governor because it’s the CEO of the state, the head decision-maker, and they’re more comfortable with women as part of a deliberative body (i.e. the House or Senate).” This may help to explain why 24 states, including some of largest (New York, California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania) have never elected a woman governor, but only six states have failed to elect a female member of Congress.
The same Foundation study also points that independent voters may be the key to future elections and female independent voters tend to be more supportive of women candidates. Overall, the number of voters classifying themselves on independents is on the rise. What if female candidates used this to their advantage?
In 2014, 36 states will be voting for a governor. According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog, incumbents in 10 of those seats have high disapproval ratings. However, that blog also points out that despite these high negative numbers, half of these seats are still likely to be won by the incumbent because his or her political party holds a strong majority in the state.
As someone who lives in and has worked on campaigns in a state where the majority party holds a two-to-one advantage, I’ve seen firsthand how party preference can trump everything, and so I’m inclined to agree that many of these incumbents despite low approval ratings are safe in a conventional race. But what if a female candidate decided to shake-up convention and run as an independent?
Stay with me. I can see your eyes rolling now considering the incredibly poor success rates among third-party candidates historically.
However, social media is shifting the playing field considerably. For example, a traditional weakness of independent candidates is that they can’t compete with the fundraising power of a political party. But the Obama campaign raised more money through social media than either the DNC or the RNC in 2012. Not to mention, social media provides incredible tools for turning out the vote and getting messages out to potential voters, which never existed before now.
Even more promising is there is a real longing for independent candidates among the electorate. After all, isn’t it conceivable that the increase in voters classifying themselves Independents is indicative of a growing distaste for partisanship and a desire to see more centrist candidates? Our primary system, where independent voters don’t vote, means candidates at the far end of the political system end up winning their party’s nomination. Thus, there is growing gap between what voters want and what candidates are available. Why can’t female candidates help fill this gap?
To be clear, I’m not suggesting all women candidates should run as independents. Certainly it’s better to be true to who you are. However, if we don’t want to wait decades before we see substantial progress, we need to be open to unconventional approaches.
The day we achieve gender equality in our leadership will certainly be revolutionary, but perhaps the way we get there could be too.