How much inspiration do we need?
In 1971 Congress designated August 26 “Women’s Equality Day,” commemorating the 1920 certification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. Congresswoman Bella Abzug, famed social activist and leader of the women’s movement, put forth the legislation and would be thrilled that 45 years later, Hillary Clinton has made it to the top of the Presidential ticket. Regardless of your party affiliation, it’s an extraordinary accomplishment, and one that should have the capacity to change the trajectory for gender parity in political leadership across the United States. But can one woman alone create political parity?
There are 500,000 elective offices in the US and women still hold only 22% of those seats. That means we still need 140,000 more women in office to achieve gender parity. Most of those offices are at the local and state level, and while they don’t get the same attention as President, these leaders make critical policy decisions that impact the daily lives of people in their home communities, issues like what subjects get taught in school, how we police our streets, what kinds of weapons we can carry.
No doubt, Hillary Clinton’s nomination will have an inspirational effect on young women — even moreso if she becomes President and girls grow up seeing a woman leading the most powerful nation in the world. But again, look at the numbers we need to reach gender parity: 140,000 more women in office, which means we’ll need at least four times as many to run. That’s a lot of inspiration to ask of a single woman, even if she does reach the highest office in the land. We can’t rely on this historic candidacy to work its magic. It’s up to us to do the work.
Research on young people makes it clear we need more than inspiration. In high school, boys and girls share the same level of political ambition, but by young adulthood, men surge forward in their desire to lead. Why? Girls are more likely to be socialized by parents to think of political and civic leadership as a career path, school and media provide girls with less exposure to political information and discussion, and ultimately they are less likely to receive encouragement to run from anyone in any part of their lives. The net result is that young women don’t think they will ever be qualified for public leadership, even once established in their careers. So shockingly, three times as many young women are more open to becoming a secretary than a member of Congress!
Some may say that this change will organically occur with or without our participation. And research confirms it will — in a 100 years! Perhaps that number will shift if Clinton wins the 2016 Presidential election, but don’t we want to accelerate that progress?
Instead of waiting around for this shift to happen from the top down, let’s own the solutions ourselves. As parents we can talk to our daughters about what it’s like to see a woman running for this historic office and help them analyze why it has taken so long to get there. Parents and educators can encourage girls to run for office in their schools and communities from an early age. Teachers can use this historic moment as a platform to discuss political leadership vis a vis the constitution: who did that document protect and how did it influence who leads us?
Yes, the first woman has crashed through the political glass ceiling. It’s up to us to ensure millions more young women follow her through. A century is too long to wait.