A few years ago my colleague Martin Plissner wrote a piece entitled "The 25 Percent Solution," quoting Rep. Louise Slaughter bemoaning the fact that the United States ranked 60th in women's political leadership, behind Sierra Leone and tied with Andorra. "With women holding barely 15 percent of the seats on Capitol Hill, it will soon trail Iraq and Afghanistan as well," Plissner wrote.
The media is agog over the fact that Rep. Nancy Pelosi is about to become speaker of the House, and releases from women's organizations proclaim victories last Tuesday of "historic proportions." This is true. When the Congress convenes next January, according to the Center for American Women in Politics there will be between 70 and 74 women in the House (depending on the outcome of a few contested races) and 16 in the U.S. Senate. That will make the percentage of women in the House and Senate a whopping 16-17 percent.
The march to equality comes in baby steps, although as Plissner pointed out, "Under the constitution ratified by Iraqi voters with the blessing of advisors recruited by Washington, women are assured at least 25% of the parliament and when the Afghan parliament was elected, women made up 27% – under a similar constitutional floor of 25%. Both countries, ironically, drafted their constitutions under the guidance of that nation whose women rank sixtieth in the world for their share of their country's lawmaking clout." By September of 2006, the U.S. had fallen to 67th on the list of women in parliaments around the world, with Afghanistan ranked 25th and Iraq 28th.
Quotas are decidedly out of fashion in the U.S.; the politically correct prefer goals and timetables. By my count, if the goal of parity is to be achieved at the current "historic" rate, the number of men and women will be equal in the Senate in 2040 and in the House in 2066. And that's the rosy view; historic years don't happen that often. Emily's List, the organization that raises and spends more money than any other PAC, spent over $60 million this cycle on recruitment, support and programs to get Democratic pro-choice women elected, yet wound up with only six new candidates elected in the House and two in the Senate. They say, however, that they had impressive successes reelecting Democratic members of Congress and governors, and in electing hundreds of women to state and local offices, which will put a lot of women in the pipeline for future statewide and federal runs.
Emily's List's expenditure of over $8 million to mobilize women voters may have produced more apparent results. Women voters once again were more Democratic than their male counterparts and provided the margin of victory in the crucial Senate races in Virginia, Missouri and Montana. In those states a majority of women voted for Democrats Webb, McCaskill and Tester, while their male counterparts picked Allen, Talent and Burns; and because women outvoted men, Democrats regained the Senate.
The exit polls show some interesting things about the women voters of 2006. They are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the direction of the country and only 27 percent believe their families are getting ahead financially. By 40 percent to 27 percent, they believe life for the next generation will be worse than today. Women are substantially more supportive of allowing illegal immigrants to apply for legal status than are men, and more likely to favor troop withdrawal from Iraq.
Forty-three percent of women (compared to 35 percent of men) said the economy was extremely important in their vote for the House, and they favored increasing the minimum wage by 69 percent to 30 percent. Women are also more likely than men to attend church frequently and to say that values such as same-sex marriage and abortion are very important in their voting decisions.
One of the groups which got some play this year was single women, a potential goldmine for Democrats. This year they voted 66 percent for Democrats for Congress, compared with 62 percent of single men and 48 percent of married women.
As the glare of the media spotlight shines on Nancy and Hillary and what Nancy means for Hillary, and pundits start worrying about the feminization of politics and Democrats becoming the Mommy party, they may want to look at the numbers and sit back and relax. They've come a long way baby, but Washington is still very much a men's club.