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The XX Files

Chicks in charge

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Things are good for women right now. Not great, but good. With Nancy Pelosi making history as the first woman speaker of the House (third in line for the presidency! gleeful Dems keep pointing out), and the defeat of the South Dakota abortion ban, prospects for women in America are looking a little brighter.

There's other good --- not great --- news, too. The new Congress will have more women than ever before. The addition of at least three women to the House of Representatives and two to the Senate brings the total number of women in Congress to 86: 70 in the House, 16 in the Senate.

Still, though, that's only 18 percent, nowhere near the percentage of women in the population. White men still dominate Congress. And the White House. And the Supreme Court. And that means laws will continue to reflect, for the most part, men's priorities. True, all men aren't alike --- preferences for an all-cereal diet and monopoly of the remote control notwithstanding. And Democratic men are certainly a step up from Republican men. But still.

Experience shows that male leadership often means America has money for war but not for education. It means American has money for jails, but not for job training and day care. It means money for tax cuts for the wealthy but not for a higher federal minimum wage. And don't get me started on gun control and women's reproductive rights.

True, this year an increase in female candidates across the board reversed what had been a downward trend. And, true, during this election cycle more women ran for state-level legislative and executive positions (that includes governor, lieutenant governor, and state attorney general) than ever before. But I remember the ecstatic predictions in 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman. Back then, fueled by outrage at the Anita Hill trial, women broke new ground with four new Senators and 24 Representatives. That brought the total of women in Congress to six Senators and 47 Representatives. I guess I thought we'd be farther along by now. Over the years we've barely inched forward. We've centimetered forward.

Why is this? Many factors contribute to whether or not female politicians get elected. Sometimes it's as simple as vacant seats. In a country where incumbents are almost always reelected, it's hard for newcomers of either sex to win. When several seats are vacant, as in Congress in 1992, women have a greater chance of assuming power.

But even before there's an opportunity, there needs to be a desire. Studies show that while men often decide independently to run for office, women tend to need persuading to do so. According to the American Journal of Political Science, 11 percent of women run for state legislative office on their own initiative, compared with 37 percent of male candidates. Conversely, 18 percent of male candidates had to be talked into running, while 37 percent of women needed to be recruited. Groups like the women's PAC Emily's List are working to provide just this sort of support and encouragement.

In 2001, when an abysmally low number of women were participating in politics, Emily's List started a political-opportunity program to seek out and train eligible, pro-choice Democratic women to run for office. Their idea is to create a "farm team of women for the future," with an eye toward grooming them to run for national-level offices, including president.

Another reason there aren't enough female politicians at the federal level is that women start their careers in local and state offices while men jump into politics at every level. A full 86 percent of current female House members worked their way up from lower offices.

Something that worked in women's favor this election cycle has me grumbling. One reason women made such gains this year, analysts say, is because we are viewed as agents of change. Sick of the sad, bad, mad bloodbath that is Iraq and the greed and corruption that has stained the Republican Party, Americans wanted something new. And women are seen as incorruptible. Ha!

Until there are enough female politicians in office for the country to see that we, too, are power-hungry, corruptible, and perversely sex-obsessed, women will always be viewed as agents of change. Sure, it works for us. Sometimes. But it's patronizing, and it's the razor-edge of old stereotypes about women. Furthermore, why should women have to wait until the country is in extremis to gain political advantage?

America will soon have nine female governors, the same number we had in 2004. I think a country with 50 states should have at least 25 female governors, but the Center for American Women in Politics isn't discouraged. Yet. While statewide positions are often stepping stones to federal posts, governorships, in particular, often lead to the White House, the CAWP reports. Since the turn of the last century, eight of the past 18 presidents have been former governors. That's something.

And though nine female governors is not a record, the number of women elected governor year was: six. Six is good, not great. Forgive me: I've been expecting women to take over the world since I was little. I'm glad girls today have Pelosi as a role model. I hope they won't still be counting women's political gains in the single digits.

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