In response to a blog I wrote about the Harman debate, Kathryn Jones posted an interesting comment referring to a video about women in USA politics, and reasons for their lack of involvement in the political system. This blog will act as a summary of the video, as well as a comparison with the UK political system, as many of the themes that are discussed in the video ring true of the UK political system. For example, the USA political system only has 16% elected women, which is similar to our 126 of the 645 MPs being women.
The video mainly concerns a healthy debate around women's participation in USA politics, between Caroline Heldman, Martha Coakley, Katherine Clark and Kimberly Driscoll. Before the debate, however, there is an interesting discussion around the history of women's involvement in USA politics. It showed that the isolation of women and dominance of men in politics has not stopped women from trying to break through their oppression. For example, Abigail Adams, the wife of John Adams, the second President of USA, said:
"if particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws, in which we have no voice, or representation."Thus, it is important to reflect on the important legal advancements that have happened, which is truer of the UK than the USA. However, what Adams says is still largely true, in practice.
Turning to the contemporary discussions of women in politics, it is obvious that Feminism is crucial for us to gain grounding in key equality debates, and push for more women to seek high political office. Caroline Heldman, who provided the bulk of research statistics and findings as a PHD student, said that the low level of USA women in politics in comparisons to other countries was because other countries allow more accessible paths to get to top positions. She said that this included the women's husband, for example, dying and allowing the women to take over their position. However, this is something that we do not have in the UK system, and is not something that the USA system should aspire to either. It is patronising, and defeats the object of getting women into office on the grounds of their own merit. The other path that she felt allowed women to get to top positions was for women to work through a political system, a political system that we ourselves have. However, as shown with the low number of MPs in our political system, this would do little to help women get into top positions. The male dominance is systematic through every aspect of these types of systems.
Heldman offered reasons for why women don't stand for office in the USA. Whilst her research concentrated on the USA political system, her findings provide a general oversight for why women around the world do not stand for political life, so can be clearly linked to the unequal gender political system in the UK.
Family obligations was a primal reason, as children are a big reason for why women do not persue a political career, whilst having children for men has little affect on their desire and ability to work. This is exactly the same in the UK. Sarah Palin in the USA is a good example of how the children line can be thrown at women to stop them from entering politics, as she was criticised for leaving small kids at home whilst she sought high political office. Why is it ok for men then? Well because of the systematic injustice towards women and perceived roles for men and women. Many women themselves hold these views, and so this shows how we need Feminism more than ever, to counteract these engrained detrimental views, and seek to promote women's interests so they are more confident to gain political office.
This links to the next reason given for why there is a lack of women in political office. This is confidence. Heldman said that women are less likely to have the confidence in their own ability and skill level to feel as though they are worthy of political office. This links clearly to the UK political system and recent media coverage around Harman and Clinton, which turned the debates about whether women are in politics or not to do with whether you would be able to have sex with them or not. So this takes the debate away from whether they have the skills to whether they look good, and this type of negativity just puts women off going for top jobs. Her research showed how girls and boys when younger, before having the full effects of socialisation, both have similar ambitions. Only when they reach a substantive level of the socialisation process do we see the ambitions of boys and girls change, with the girl’s ambitions and confidence declining, with the males wanting to obtain top political jobs. This simply needs to be challenged.
An interesting concept that the documentary picks on is that of Labyrinth, which Heldman says should be used instead of glass ceiling. After her explanation, I tend to agree with her, despite my earlier blog, which stated agreement with an article saying that the glass ceiling exists. I still agree with the principle of the glass ceiling, however, Labyrinth is a more substantive description of the gender inequalities that women have to face. It refers to various pit falls that women face, at various points in their life, so can be young or old, instead of the glass ceiling only really referring to what happens at the end of women's careers when they are stopped from climbing any further. The concept of Labyrinth can be clearly related to women and politics in an UK and a USA setting, as it refers to how women are more likely to face obstacles to getting into political jobs, especially top ones, throughout their life, from the start of the socialisation process to the end, with various pit falls such as having kids, and looking after elderly relatives as well as the traditional male culture surrounding politics.
This idea also links to the concept of double blind, which refers to the principle of being "damned if you do, damned if you don't". This is the concept that can explain the media bias that occurred towards Hillary Clinton and other influential women who act masculine, as they feel that is the way to break the mould and promote women's interests. However, as soon as they do, they are shot down by critics, for not being feminine enough. Interestingly, it made me think about the way most women in politics have short hair. On the women, for example, there was a series of images of USA political women and they nearly all had short hair, the same can be said for UK political women, such as Harriet Harman and Chloe Smith, for example. Apparently, the documentary claims that the heightened need for masculinity amongst political candidates happened after the 9/11, which is an interesting analogy, and something to bare in mind with the UK political system too.
When discussing why women get into politics, Martha Coakley an Attorney General, stated that women get into politics because of an issue they believe in strongly. Therefore, it leads one to conclude that if we mobilised the wider Feminist goal so more women believed in it, then maybe more women would get involved in politics and fighting for specific issues, instead of wrongly seeing Feminism as a practice for man bashing lesbianism. Therefore, this shows how we need to redefine what makes a successful political candidate, so what makes a successful mayor, for example - which was something Coakley drew on. For example, redefine political positions so they do not feel as though they have to work 90 hours a week etc to be successful in their job. This is something that Coakley feels is up to women to challenge and change, which frankly I agree with. This would help families with childcare responsibility, for example, however, a national childcare scheme in UK and USA would be better.
She rightly makes a good point regarding women being elected, which is that there sex is seen as a way to judge and compare their work with other political figures. In other words, if a woman was elected as a President and she was not well liked, people would most likely say, well look what happened when a woman was elected. This is very much what is said to me when I argue for women's rights, with Thatcher as the example of supposed women's incapability with politics thrown at me. However, if we have shoddy politicians that are males such as Bush or Brown, well have you seen anyone say, "we shouldn't elect a man again", or "it is because he is a man"? The answer is, a plain no.
There was also an interesting discussion around whether women's approach to politics differs to men’s. Heldman said that research showed women to be more liberal regardless of their political position, and that they are more likely to put women's issues at the top of their political agenda. This can be clearly shown with Harriet Harman's recent comments. Even more interestingly, due to this, women are more likely to address problems systemically whereas men are more likely to take the agency line. Maybe this is why the 'blame it on the people' Tories, are arguably the most sexist towards women out of the three political parties.
I will leave you with a quote from influential Eleanor Holmes Norton, which shows how women and men need to tackle collectively the position of women in society, and that women need to realise that institutions such as porn only serve to isolate them from society, not liberate them:
"If you're going to be a respected member of society, I don't know how you can let yourself get degraded."