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United States Is Just Average In Terms Of Women's Role In Politics, Authors Say

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When it comes to political equality for women, the United States ranks “middle of the pack” compared to most other countries, according to the authors of a recent book on women and global politics.

The candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton for president has broken new ground in the United States, but the nation still trails many other countries in women’s political representation, said Pamela Paxton, associate professor of sociology and political science at Ohio State University.

“It would be groundbreaking for the United States if Hillary Clinton were elected, but it would still be following the middle-of-the road pattern,” Paxton said.  “A number of other countries have already had female leaders.

“Women are still terribly underrepresented in the U.S. Congress, but there has been a marked improvement from 20 years ago when there was less than 5 percent women in Congress,” Hughes said.

“Overall, we’re behind many countries, but there are also plenty of countries that do more poorly,” she said.

Paxton and Melanie Hughes, a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State, are authors of Women, Politics, and Power: A Global Perspective (Pine Forge Press, 2007).

In the book, Paxton and Hughes argue that during the past century, women have made inroads into every area of political decision making around the world.  But they are still a long way from achieving equality with men in every country, and that includes the United States.

One important way to measure gender equality is to see the proportion of women in a country’s legislature or parliament, according to the authors.  By that measure, as of 2005 the United States ranked 61st of 128 countries, with 15.2 percent women in Congress.  Rwanda leads the world with 48.8 percent women in its parliament.  Several countries had no women at all in their legislatures.

“Women are still terribly underrepresented in the U.S. Congress, but there has been a marked improvement from 20 years ago when there was less than 5 percent women in Congress,” Hughes said.

Another measure of gender equality is women’s suffrage.  Again, the United States was somewhere in the middle in terms of when it first gave women the right to vote (1920), trailing New Zealand, which was first in 1893, as well as Australia and a variety of European countries.

The role of women in politics has received extra attention this year with Hillary Clinton being the first woman to seriously contend for her party’s presidential nomination.

There are conflicting signs as to whether Americans are ready to elect a woman to the White House, according to Hughes and Paxton.

On one hand, the percentage of Americans who say they would be willing to vote for a woman as president has risen steadily, from a low of 33 percent in 1937 to over 90 percent in most of the 1990s.  But interestingly, the percentage dropped sharply in 2002, once viable candidates like Hillary Clinton and others started to emerge.

“A lot of people may have supported voting for a woman in the abstract, but once there were real, viable candidates, they weren’t ready,” Hughes said.

In a separate survey, a quarter of Americans still believed in 2002 that men were better suited emotionally than women for politics.

“It’s a very difficult situation for women.  If you think about the characteristics that are important for a leader, and the characteristics that are seen as important to being feminine – they are polar opposites,” Paxton said.  “It’s tricky for women to walk that line, and you can see Hillary Clinton trying to balance that line.”

Paxton and Hughes also speculate that some of the obstacles faced by Clinton may have more to do with her gender than the media, and even Clinton herself, acknowledge.  “People say it has to do with her personality or her demeanor, but her gender is still there,” Hughes said.  “Her behavior, her relationship with her spouse, and even her clothing are evaluated differently because she is a woman.”

If Hillary Clinton is elected, she will join a very small number of female leaders in the world.  The authors calculated that just 4 percent of the world’s governments were headed by women as of March 2006.

“It is probably safe to say this number will grow over time, but is likely to remain a small percentage of all leaders for some time,” the authors said.

Gender discrimination is one problem that has kept more women out of politics, according to the authors.  But another issue is convincing women to seek a career in politics.

Studies have shown that among equally qualified men and women, a greater proportion of men say they would run for political office and actually do run for office.

“One problem is that many women have issues with ambition – many are just not viewing themselves becoming involved in politics,” Paxton said.  “We need to have more young girls and women who see themselves as future leaders.”


Contact: Pamela Paxton, (614) 688-8266; Paxton.36@osu.eduMelanie Hughes, (614)247-6404; Hughes.919@osu.edu

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu