“Women’s rights are human rights” – Hillary Clinton, 1995 (on women’s rights globally)
As a senior, I have the opportunity to take the classes that I actually want to take this semester. One of these includes Philanthropy & Social Problem Solving, which is a class sponsored by the Philanthropy Lab, which gives the class $50,000 to donate to what we deem as a worthy cause. My class elected to split into four groups and focus on four different topics – Women’s Rights, Economic Opportunity, Education, and Criminal Justice. Each individual within each group is to select an issue within their topic, and then propose it to the group to focus on. One person in each group will be deemed the “winner”, and the group will then focus on that topic for the remainder of the semester. Later, groups will do in-depth research on local organizations, and eventually select one cause to donate their money to. Our class decided that 75% of the $50,000 will be split evenly between the groups, and the remaining $12,500 will essentially be up for grabs. At our end-of-term presentations, the class will vote on where the remaining money should go (it is possible that it is still split between multiple groups, depending on how voting goes).
Predictably, I chose to be in the Women’s Rights group. When considering what to write my paper about, I first wanted to think about problems facing Tennessee specifically, as Vanderbilt is located in Nashville, and the assignment called for a local organization to be given the money. After doing some research, I found that the prospects for women in government in Tennessee are quite dismal.
In fact, in 2017, the national average for female representation in the state legislature was 25%. According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), Tennessee ranks 43rd of 50 states for the proportion of women in state legislature with 5 of 30 State Senate members being female and only 16 women in the 99-person State House. In addition to Tennessee’s state legislature consisting of a mere 15.9% females, a female has never been elected Governor of Tennessee or to the U.S. Senate. Clearly, there is a major gap between female and male representation in Tennessee state government. A 2012 study provides that women do not have an equal opportunity to run for office, compared to men, due to self-doubt and gender bias, however once elected they focus more on women’s issues than men do. This finding leads to how this concern affects women’s rights issues at large.
According to the OECD, “decision making bodies create the rules that affect people’s rights, behaviours and life choices”, therefore gender diversity in government is essential to lowering inequality levels. The issue of women in government spreads across women’s rights issues as once women are in a place of power, they have access to the resources that can improve women’s rights. We know that women lead differently than men, particularly by being more collaborative and bipartisan. Further, women in government push for more policies related to women’s issues than their male counterparts, although many of these bills are never passed due to gender biases (Volden, Wiseman, & Wittmer, 2016). As far as female legislatures, an analysis of floor speeches in the U.S. Senate demonstrates that women speak more about women’s rights, specifically those related to health and family issues. Additionally, it was found that within the gubernatorial level, females focus more on social welfare policies than males. In analyzing the effects on the state, a study by the American Journal of Political Science shows that women in government bring back 9% more federal money to their districts than men. Furthermore, women have been the ones to fight for women’s health coverage in the Affordable Care Act and against sexual harassment in the military (Miller, 2016). These cases, as well as many more, demonstrate how a lack of women in government is not an isolated problem, but rather one that stands at the center of a myriad of women’s rights issues.
Since 1917 when Jeannette Rankin became the first female member of Congress, the U.S. has seen marked improvement in female representation in government. The Pew Research Center shows that from 1965 to 2017, the U.S. Senate has moved from 2% to 21% female, and the U.S. House from 2.3% to 19.1%. Moreover, since 1971, the percentage of women in state legislature has improved from 4.5% to 24.8%. In the cabinet, we have gone from 0% women with Johnson’s presidency to a record high of 40.9% women during Clinton’s second term, and then falling to 21.1% with President Trump. Despite these minor successes, in the case of governors, progress has been bleak as we have only improved from 2% women in 1975 to 8% in 2017. Finally, we have never had a female U.S. president, showing that while we have progressed, there is still much do be done.
As far as improvement goes in Tennessee, CAWP shows that we progressed from 3.8% women in the state legislature in 1975 to a record high of 18.9% in 2010, and then down to 15.9% in 2017. Worse, the 2017 percentage is the lowest that Tennessee has seen since 2002. While Tennessee has improved overall since 1975, we are behind where we were over a decade ago, demonstrating that this problem is persistent, and systemic change is not being made.
Further, the even greater lack of women in color in government points to a further underrepresented population of women in government. In 2017, only 35.8% of the women in the US Congress were of color, 10.8% of women in statewide elective executive offices were of color, and 24.1% of female state legislatures were of color. In Tennessee, 0% of women Congress are of color.
These jarring statistics demonstrate that the effects of the lack of female representation in Tennessee’s state and local government directly affect women, but further affect the entire U.S. population, as women in government are more collaborative and more likely to support issues of social welfare, women’s health, and women’s family issues, affecting most of the American population. As I read about these issues, I became disheartened. While the U.S. is supposed to be an exemplary nation, here we are barely making any progress (and I am very aware that this is not the only place in which we struggle to correct inequalities). However, I also realized that the first step to correcting women’s rights is securing women’s representation which has the potential to have reverberating effects on the women’s rights movement as a whole.
Coincidentally, I was writing this paper on the morning of Saturday, January 20th, the date of the second annual Women’s March. I couldn’t have timed the writing of this paper more perfectly, as I quite literally closed my laptop upon finishing my outline, and headed toward Nashville’s Public Square to stand with the fifteen thousand women and men who were joining together to make the message that Hillary Clinton voiced over 20 years ago heard. Seeing people of all ages, races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic classes walking together in support of women’s rights made me more hopeful. Despite the lack of progress that I had just read and written about, at least there was finally something being done. Finally, we were acknowledging the truth. For the second year in a row, the country came together to stand against the inequalities that simply should not exist in such a developed society. Hearing people chant things like “Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” made me encouraged that things could change.
Although my focus remains on women in business over women in politics, due to my own personal career goals, writing this paper brought me to a new understanding of the importance of women’s representation. As I walked with my friends on Saturday, a thought occurred to me. As a middle and high school student, I was constantly fascinated by the White House and all that went on inside of it. I remember dreaming of working there one day, maybe as the Press Secretary, or Perhaps the White House Chief of Staff. However, in all of my years dreaming of working in the White House, not once did I consider that I could be the President. In my mind, that wasn’t a job for someone like me (someone with two X chromosomes).
So here’s to the girls who will come after me. To the girls who will see a different reality of women in government. To the girls who will watch more women lead and who will dream bigger than I ever did. Here’s to the girls who will become the future female Presidents of the United States of America.