When people think about the scarcity of female politicians, social and cultural explanations usually come to mind. They think about the constraints of traditional gender roles, inequalities in women's socioeconomic status, and the dearth of women candidates. In other words, they tend to think about candidate supply. In doing so, they often neglect the demand for women candidates. Because of their role in candidate selection, parties are crucial to women's election to office. Parties are particularly important in closed-list proportional representation system. Historically, the major parties were obstacles to women's advancement in US politics. Today, the electoral competitiveness of women candidates in legislative elections arguably means that the parties are no longer averse to fielding women candidates. Were women's access and influence within party politics to increase, and were parties to expand their commitment to recruit and nominate women candidates, the presence of women in politics would increase worldwide.
p o l i t i c s Features Life’s a Party Do Political Parties Help or Hinder Women? Kira sanbonmatsu e n g e n d e r i n g W hen we think about the scarcity of female politicians, social and Kira sanbonmatsu is senior scholar at cultural explanations usually the Center for american Women and Politics come to mind. We think about (CaWP) at the Eagleton institute of Politics the constraints of traditional and associate Professor of Political science at gender roles, inequalities in women’s socioeconomic rutgers university. status, and the dearth of women candidates. In other words, we tend to think about candidate supply. In doing so, we often neglect the demand for women candidates and discourage candidates from running. candidates. But we need to ask: are political parties Too often, political parties have been an obstacle that recruiting, nominating, and supporting women women must overcome. But the US case suggests that candidates? women’s organizations and movements, women leaders, Because of their role in candidate selection, parties are and women voters are the keys to making parties a help crucial to women’s election to office. Parties are particu- rather than a hindrance to women’s representation. larly important in closed-list proportional representation systems. But parties matter even in countries with com- Women and Political Parties in the United States paratively weak political parties such as the United States. The feminist scholar Jo Freeman has characterized A focus on the United States is instructive for this reason. women’s inclusion in US parties as a long struggle for The existence of primaries in the United States can curtail recognition—a story not unlike that of women around a party’s ability to control the nomination, particularly the world. Historically, the major parties were obstacles to if the party remains neutral during the primary contest. women’s advancement in US politics. The opposition of Yet even in the United States, parties recruit and endorse both the major parties—the Republicans and Democrats— 36 H A R v A R D I n T e R n A T I o n A l R e v I e W • Spring 2010 Features Do PolitiCal PartiEs hElP or hinDEr WomEn? to women’s suffrage helps explain why the fight for suffrage much more likely than their male colleagues to have run was such a long one. Women’s rights activists called for for office the very first time because they were recruited the vote in 1848, and over the next half century, women and much less likely to be self-starters who said that the were gradually able to win voting rights in some states. decision to run was entirely their idea. Both women and But it would not be until 1920 that women as a class would men identified a party leader as the single most influential achieve the vote. on the eve of women’s enfranchisement, source of recruitment for this very first candidacy. We also both parties became interested in winning women’s votes find that women legislators were more likely than men to and worked to incorporate women into party committees. say that recruitment was the primary reason they sought But neither party sought to elect women to office, and their current state legislative office. For example, 24 per- women did not wield significant influence within either cent of women state
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