During the 2018 Spring Semester, I attended a weekly pre-law symposium featuring various speakers who discussed their training and careers as lawyers. When asked how they balanced family life with their careers, the men often advised us to attend our future children’s soccer or baseball games. Although these speakers likely do more for their kids then they let on, their advice left me feeling uneasy. If they were barely able to attend the games, who was driving their children to practice every day? Why did the two female speakers give up their careers in law to raise a family? In most American homes, the split of responsibilities is alarmingly unequal between genders, hindering the career advancement of women. Despite motherhood’s great rewards, there still needs to be equal opportunities for women, particularly those who wish to pursue legal and government-oriented professions. In other words, female professionals should be able to follow their desired career paths without having to sacrifice family or marriage. Because women are excluded from political leadership and underrepresented in the United States Congress, I will argue that Americans ought to rethink our attitudes towards “ideal” femininity and conceptions of motherhood. As a nation, we need to create a world where women are encouraged to take on leadership roles and fulfill their ambitions.
Due to popular associations between femininity and passivity, there is a distressing lack of females in Congress. According to the New York Times, “Fewer Republican senators are women than men named John — despite the fact that Johns represent 3.3 percent of the male population, while women represent 50.8 percent of the total population” (Miller et al). This alarming statistic calls into question who is making the decisions that affect all 325.7 million Americans, specifically the 125.9 million females (“Population- Census Bureau”). Discussing her experiences as a former Senate committee staff member in the 1990s, Kate Howard reveals the truth of this statistic: “Yet the majority of our colleagues and bosses (elected and staff) were white and male. I met very few women senior staffers on either side of the aisle, and even fewer members” (Howard). She continues, introducing a surprising fashion reality, “It wasn’t until the 1990s that women could even wear pants on the Senate floor” (Howard). Howard recognizes that Congress has grown more diverse, but she also asserts that much work needs to be done in order for equality to be achieved.
Although a minority, the women in Congress are defying both gender and racial stereotypes. In 2017, women held 105 seats making up 19.6% percent of Congress. They make of 21% of the Senate, and 19.3% of the House of Representatives (“Women in U.S. Congress 2017”). Over the past century, women have made enormous progress, and we must commend those who have paved the way for others’ success. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress in 1916, once compared men and women to the right and left hands, saying, “it doesn’t make sense to not use both” (“Women in Congress”). As this illuminating comparison suggests, Rankin was not afraid to stand up for her beliefs. She was the only member of Congress to oppose United States entrance in World War I and II. Her experiences best exemplify this sentiment and introduce the idea that women and men do not need to possess the same characteristics to be equal. The two genders complement each other, and success cannot be achieved without using both. Congress has made significant progress since Rankin’s time, and, although twenty-percent is promising, it is by no means equal. In order to bridge this gap and create a more equal governing body, we need to overcome obstacles.
Women face many deterrents when running for office such as incumbency and gendered perceptions of the qualities that candidates should possess. If recent studies such as these have indicated that women and men win elections at equal rates, why then is the gender gap so large? Jennifer L. Lawless and Kathryn Pearson attempt to discover the root causes of this gender disparity in their article “The Primary Reason for Women’s Underrepresentation? Reevaluating the Conventional Wisdom” (2008). Although women received the right to vote nearly one hundred years ago, it was not until the 1970s that they began to enter the workforce and run for office. Consequently, “the 218 women elected between 1977 and 2016 account for nearly 70 percent of all the women who have served in the history of Congress” (“Women in Congress”). Therefore, challenging an incumbent, one who holds a political office, is a fairly recent and rare phenomenon. Since there are no term limits for Congress, men have held the same positions for decades, and, when an incumbent passes away or retires, the open seat leads to a highly competitive election. As Lawless and Pearson explain, “these primary election dynamics affect the initial decision to run for office. The candidate-centered system in the United States, in other words, may hamper women’s entrance into public office” (78). Additionally, they determined that there are certain characteristics that politicians are expected to possess that are typically attributed to men, which include being “confident, assertive, and self-promoting,” and a political career does not coincide with many people’s expectations for a woman’s role as a mother (Lawless et al. 68). Ironically, their gender is not a deterrent for most voters, but oftentimes the stereotypical conceptions of motherhood and femininity deter them from getting involved in elections in the first place. For example, Congresswomen Gretchen Driskell said, “Being a single mom, I looked into it [running for office] in 2010, but my youngest was in high school, and I couldn’t pay my bills.” She continued, “It’s a hard thing to do if you’re really stressed out about keeping a stable home for your kids” (Carpentier). There is a great deal of truth to this statement, and women, especially mothers, face many obstacles on their journey to Congress.
Although Lawless and Pearson do not believe that women are viewed by voters as less equip than men, there are other scholars who disagree. In “Do Women and Men in Congress Cultivate Different Images? Evidence from Congressional Websites” (2001), David Niven and Jeremy Zilber argue that “women candidates and legislators are taken less seriously” (395). Their study explores the media attention given to female candidates, showing how women often “receive less coverage, and receive attention on ‘women’s issues’ such as abortion and family leave while being ignored on most other matters of substance” (395). Due to this lack of coverage, female candidates are seen as less credible and knowledgeable than their male counterparts. Niven and Zilber stress the difficulties of being elected, and, despite a victory, female candidates might not be taken seriously by the men in Congress. To that, I would also add that the reactions family and friends have to male candidates in comparison to female ones is another vital roadblock in this fight for gender equality. For example, during Hillary Clinton’s presidential election, The Atlantic published an article titled “Hillary Clinton Grandmother-in-Chief,” which discussed how her role as a grandmother affected her leadership skills. Voters associate female candidates with gentility and kindness, which can be detrimental to their campaign efforts. These gender stereotypes yield an unknowing effect on the voting choices of many Americans and affect their legislative influence once elected.
Although the votes of senators and members of the House are weighed equally in decision-making, the development of legislation and its specific stipulations are created mostly by men. Congressional committees are vital to the passage of legislation, and members of Congress are most influential depending on the type of committee and the role that they serve. Setting up the policy agenda for Congress, the House Rules committee consists of thirteen members only two of which are women. This gender discrepancy means that about 15% of the committee is made up of women, which is less than the already small percentage of women in Congress (“Membership”). It is behind these closed doors where women’s opinions are outnumbered by those of the men who oversee the actions of these committees.
The gender disparity in Congressional leadership came to the forefront in recent news with anticipated retirement of Speaker Paul Ryan. After Ryan’s announcement, CNN reporter Lauren Fox wrote that many were surprised that “no women and no minorities are in contention for the post” (Fox). Although Republican women can only run for this position if the party maintains a majority, many Congresswomen wanted to increase gender diversity beyond the current twenty-two seats held by women. Mary Bono, a former Republican from California, discussed the impossibility of maintaining her responsibilities to her family and a leadership role: “A lot of women, they do their day job and then they have to do their night job. Help their kids with homework […] most male members seem to have a little bit freer schedule” (Fox). Although some women are offered the opportunities to take on more powerful roles, motherhood consumes an immense amount of their time. These standard gender roles discourage women from gaining a large influence in Congress and the government as a whole, thereby leading to a severe misrepresentation in American politics.
As previously mentioned, many female politicians combat gender stereotypes on a daily basis, although fighting these biases is especially difficult when one’s colleagues employ racist stereotypes as well. In a radio interview promoting her recent book Minority Leader, former Congresswoman and current gubernatorial candidate of Georgia, Stacey Abrams discusses her experience as an African American woman in Congress: “[T]here were stereotypes expected of my behavior either grounded in how the men perceived me or the way they approached conversations” (WOCA The Source Radio). Abrams’ political success gives hope to girls and young women with dreams of political careers. She acknowledges the difficulty of being a minority leader (pun intended) but offers profound advice to help combat this difficulty: “Stereotypes exist. Imbalances exist [… ] [we] can’t be victims of those things but what we can do is understand them and try convert them to our own benefit” (WOCA The Source Radio). Minority Leader not only discusses the obstacles faced by Abrams while serving in a position of Congressional leadership, but also contains tips for minorities about how to overcome gender and racial stereotype threats. Abrams’ experiences exemplify the struggles faced by women in government and the possibility of overcoming them.
Shirley Chisholm, the first African American women elected to Congress, once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” It is this go-getter attitude that will help us overcome the small percentage of women in government positions. As a nation, we view ourselves as a great melting pot, a blend of different races, religions, and ideas. We revere our liberty and inalienable rights, but are we allowed to make these claims if they do not apply to all citizens? If women are not allowed the same opportunities then are we truly the land of the free?
Abrams, Stacey. “Stacey Abrams Interview- Minority Leader.” WOCA The Source Radio, 2018.
Adler, Kayla Webley. “The Women of Congress Share Their Best Advice on How to Be a Boss.” Marie Claire, Marie Claire, 24 Oct. 2017.
Beinart, Peter. “Hillary Clinton: Grandmother in Chief.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 6 Feb. 2015,
Carpentier, Megan. “The Costs and Benefits of Being a Single Mother and Running for Congress.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 Nov. 2016,
Fox, Lauren. “Republican Women Wonder When They’ll Get a Female Speaker of the House.” CNN, Cable News Network, 24 Apr. 2018.
Howard, Kate. “Opinion: Making Congress a Better Place for Women to Work.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 14 May 2018,
Lawless, Jennifer L., and Kathryn Pearson. “The Primary Reason for Women’s Underrepresentation? Reevaluating the Conventional Wisdom.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 70, no. 1, 2008:. 67–82.
“Membership.” Membership | U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Rules Democrats.
Miller, Claire Cain, et al. “The Top Jobs Where Women Are Outnumbered by Men Named John.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Apr. 2018,
Niven, David, and Jeremy Zilber. “Do Women and Men in Congress Cultivate Different Images? Evidence from Congressional Websites.” Political Communication, 1 Oct. 2001: 395–407.
US Census Bureau. “Population.” Census.gov.
“Women in Congress.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives.
“Women in U.S. Congress 2017.” Women in U.S. Congress 2017 | CAWP, 2018.