Gender Diversity in National US Politics: a Lack of Female Representation

“Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do,” –Barack Obama


Throughout our history, we have seen many political leaders come and go. The majority of members of Congress, US Presidents, and Supreme Court Justices alike have one main thing in common, something that would be obvious to even a child: the majority of them have all been male. Female representation in the federal government has been slim – almost nonexistent – ever since this nation was created.

Personal Interest

Today, women are still underrepresented in our government. With the little representation we have, women continue to be disregarded and aren’t seen as viable leaders. In the past, women haven’t had the opportunity to participate in politics because they could not receive an education, could not vote, and were confined to the home. Now, the main reason women have such little representation is due to the fact that we as a society choose to judge female candidates based on physical appearance rather than political capability. Of the 535 seats in today’s Congress, women hold just 127 (23.7%)(Center for American Women and Politics). We still have not seen a female president, and of the 113 Supreme Court Justices that have served our country, only four of them have been female. 96.5 percent of all Supreme Court Justices have been men.

Historical Problem

Lack of female representation in the United States Government has been a problem since the beginning of our national history: women did not receive a proper education and were denied rights to vote.

Dating back to Colonial times, far fewer women than men received an education. This unbalance was a huge hindrance to women’s participation in politics. An illustration of the difference in education levels made for men and women is the story of Benjamin Franklin’s sister, Jane Franklin, who was one of the women affected by having such scarce education. While Benjamin Franklin “became a printer, a philosopher, and a statesman”,  “[Jane Franklin] became a wife, a mother, and a widow” (New Yorker). Women were not expected nor able to become people who weren’t defined solely by their housewife status. Lack of education for women continued to be a problem well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Only 14.7% of people to have earned their Bachelor’s Degree in 1870 were women, and this number didn’t reach the 50% mark until 1981 (National Center for Education Statistics).

Women and men did not receive an equal voice in deciding who will run the country: women were not able to vote until less than 100 years ago, as federal law prohibited them from being able to cast their ballot. During the struggle to secure the right to vote, women’s rights were moved to the back burner, and deemed less important than granting all men – regardless of race – the right to vote. Many men saw women’s suffrage as “a distraction from and danger to the more urgent case of black rights”(Garland, 61). This is not to say that black rights were not important, however it does show that women’s rights did not come first.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Women in the past have addressed this problem, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was the first woman to have ran for a position in the US House of Representatives – even though she didn’t even have the right to vote. While she only secured 24 of the 12,000 votes that were cast, she began to try to remedy the problem of female underrepresentation. Other efforts to alleviate  this problem have been made: the American Equal Rights Association was created to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the right of suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex”(173 of History of Women Suffrage), and the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage was led by Lucy Burns and Alice Paul to help create and campaign for an amendment ensuring women’s right to vote. While these organizations have helped make some change to the problem of female underrepresentation, the problem seems to be everlasting, as it still exists to this day. When women were finally  able to receive a decent education, have right to vote, and step foot in the political world, they were seen not as politicians, but as women whose most important aspect was appearance. Newspaper articles featuring Jeannette Rankin, the first elected Congresswoman, strayed very far from her political capability, and focused mainly on her appearance and clothing. The headline of a Washington Post article advertised, “Congresswoman Rankin Real Girl; Likes Nice Gowns and Tidy Hair”, and continued to describe Rankin as “…a woman who is thoroughly feminine—from her charmingly coiffed swirl of chestnut hair to the small, high and distinctively French heels” (Washington Post). This clear concentration on Rankin’s appearance and lack of attention to her political ability shows just how little women in politics were taken seriously in our country’s history: something that unfortunately continues today.

Present Day Problem

Today, women are still underrepresented in our government and aren’t seen as viable leaders. Of the 535 seats in today’s Congress, women hold just 127 (23.7%)(Center for American Women and Politics). We still have not seen a female president, and of the 113 Supreme Court Justices that have served our country, only four of them have been female. 96.5 percent of all Supreme Court Justices have been men.

The problem of women’s underrepresentation is manifested today in how our society chooses to view women. Women in politics today are not judged based on their qualifications for a political position, but on trivial, unimportant aspects such as their looks. Men in politics have contributed to this problem. For example, after hearing a speech from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi didn’t show much of a reaction. Sen. Lindsey Graham attacked her appearance, saying that if it weren’t for her alleged cosmetic surgeries, her face would have portrayed disgust: “Did you see Nancy Pelosi on the floor? Complete disgust… if you can get through all the surgeries, there’s disgust” (New York Times, 2015). This problem of women being objectified in the political world has added to the struggle of them being taken seriously. A study was conducted in 2014, examining just how much appearance matters for female political candidates. The research investigated how the appearance of politicians’ face related to electoral success: in the study, researchers used computer mouse tracking to determine people’s preferences. The study concluded that female politicians with less stereotypically “feminine” facial features were less likely to be voted for (Sage Pub). These results were concluded after only 380 milliseconds of visual exposure, which demonstrates how quickly (and perhaps subconsciously) implicit biases take root, and how these biases can play a large role in an important decision. However, decisions regarding male politicians were not influenced by physical appearance.

Efforts have been made to aleve this problem: organizations such as the Girls in Politics Initiative strive to create opportunities for girls to enter the political atmosphere. However, these organizations are not necessarily easily accessible, as they do cost money, and it can be hard to find finances to participate in these programs. Female figures in politics have inspired girls thinking of entering into the political world, through speeches and quotes. In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton says: “…to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.” (Clinton’s concession speech, CNN). While inspirational words such as these help girls to get interested in politics, they don’t solve the larger problem of criticism women face when deciding to run as political candidates. There is still a long way to go before women and men are equal in the political world.

Call to Action: Potential Solutions

There are two main solutions that I believe can be implemented to help solve this problem, the first being exposure, and the second being awareness and education. On a macro-level, as a society, we should present girls with education and opportunities for how to get involved. With more education and more resources, girls can be able to spark their interest and become aware earlier on what it means to be a politician. Regarding solutions on the micro-level, I think there are two that can be carried out. First, I think that we should help educate others about what it means to be a woman in politics. Women, over the course of the history of the US, have fought to earn rights, secure political positions, and legitimize themselves – efforts that should not go unnoticed. Acknowledging this, and helping others acknowledge this, can help boost the validity of women in politics, and lead to more female representation. Secondly, I believe that it is important to see female politicians as politicians: not as a woman whose only contribution is appearance. We can all help make others aware of female politicians’ genuine capability, starting off by educating ourselves. Instead of focusing on looks and dress, we should strive to focus on politicians’ qualifications and ideas – no matter the gender.

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  1. April 29, 2019 by Jaya.Dayal

    Hey Olivia, I really enjoyed reading through your project! I did my project on how empowering women is a key solution to climate change, and I think the lack of female representation in governments around the world definitely is a key part of the issue when it comes to implementing this solution. I think your focus on the United States was great, since it allowed you to go in depth with the background of the issue and different levels of solutions. While researching, did you come across similar information about other countries around the world at any point? Did anything regarding climate action ever come up?

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